Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Pilot Review: Red Band Society

Red Band Society (Wednesdays at 9:00 on Fox; Premieres September 17)

As anyone who's read or seen the movie adaptation of The Fault in Our Stars can tell you, teenage angst has reached new heights: cancer. Yes, cancer is the latest fatalistic storyline thrust upon teens in an attempt to garner tears, empathy, and even laughs. And it's working, because John Green's novel has been on the New York Times Bestsellers list for 93 weeks, and the film adaptation made $125 million at the American box office earlier this summer. Teen cancer is hot right now, so no doubt Red Band Society's creator Margaret Nagle (adapting the Catalan series Polseres vermelles) is trying to cash in. It's a nice show with a big heart, though it's not without problems.

Red Band Society is a pretty typical teenage drama, but in this case everything really is life or death. It's The Breakfast Club by way of Dead Poets Society, with a dash of It's Kind of a Funny Story and a large sprinkling of Glee. Snobby cheerleader Kara (Zoe Levin) is the newest addition to the pediatric ward at Ocean Park Hospital after she keels over at school. She and newly arrived immigrant Jordi (Nolan Sotillo), who traversed national borders to seek the best pediatric oncologist in the world's help, are our window into life in the hospital, which is pretty much what you'd expect. Just look at the poster above with everyone literally labeled by their type, from the popular girl (Emma, who's suffering from anorexia) to the mean girl (Kara) and the rebel (Leo, our wheelchair-bound Judd Nelson type). That seems to be the primary message of Red Band Society: even these seriously ill kids are just regular teenagers!

It's probably the show's most glaring weakness. For a series about something so atypical as seriously ill, some even terminal, children, Red Band Society hits all the familiar notes of a 1990s WB show or a John Hughes film. It's a sentimental soap disguised as a black comedy, but it never really succeeds as the latter because the pilot lacks depth. There are some really emotional moments, mostly thanks to a stunning performance by Charlie Rowe (of SyFy's Neverland miniseries) as Leo, the group's core and the show's heart. But almost everything else rings a bit false, a bit shallow. Octavia Spencer's Nurse Jackson is criminally underwritten, her only defining characteristic being her ability to instill fear in others; her barista literally coins her "Scary Bitch" on her morning coffee cup. Dave Annable's Dr. McAndrew is similarly disserviced by the script. By pilot's end, all we know about him is that he's a good doctor and that his looks rival those of anybody on Grey's Anatomy. These aren't true adults or authority figures for the young cast; they're adult-shaped cutouts who exist solely so it's not The Lord of the Flies up in this ward.

But that would have definitely made for a more interesting series. Red Band Society stretches the boundaries of believability as it is, so they might as well have gone over the top with it. One character with cystic fibrosis, for example, is so severely ill that he needs to live at the hospital, yet he's well enough to smoke pot in the storeroom without getting in trouble. Speaking of, the whole "living at the hospital" part of the story doesn't exactly make sense to me. For characters like Jordi and Leo, possibly; they are cancer patients, so I guess it's not totally out of the question that they would stay until the disease is in remission. But Emma just has an eating disorder; why isn't she in a short-term rehab program or something? And then there's Charlie, our spirit guide and voiceover narrator, a 12-year old boy stuck in a coma. In the pilot's most bizarre sequence, he meets Kara in an in-between world where they both hover between living and dead and gives her a message to pass on to his father. If you're going to go to this quirky place, then go there. Don't put one toe over the weird line and the rest in the Breakfast Club remainders bin, go all out.

Because then instead of something unique and heartfelt, we just get something heartfelt. And that's nothing to sneeze at. With Glee ending soon, Fox could always make room for a new slightly-off-but-mostly-just-cliched teen soap masquerading as something more serious than it actually is. And like Glee, there are some really strong central performances from the young leads here. Red Band Society is a pleasant way to spend an hour, but it won't have you shouting its greatness from the rooftops, or laughing out loud, or crying for its protagonists. It's the kind of show you'll watch, and the most you'll have to say the next day is, "I like that show. It's cute."

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