It’s not often a broadcast network makes a show that feels totally different than just about everything else on television. FOX has done that with RED BAND SOCIETY. The dark dramedy about a group of sick teenagers who live in a hospital has shades of Degrassi, but the unique setting and challenges they face puts a different spin on the coming-of-age genre. Considering that films with similar themes have popped up recently (see: The Fault in Our Stars), it makes sense to explore these issues in a longer-run format.
A show such as RED BAND SOCIETY needs a good group of young actors, and six mostly-unknowns fit the Breakfast Club-esque bill well. Jordi (Nolan Sotillo, Prom) is the new kid on the block, forced to room with bad boy Leo (Charlie Rowe, Pirate Radio). Leo’s best friend is horny Dash (The X Factor contestant Astro). We’ve got the bitchy cheerleader, Kara (Zoe Levin, The Way Way Back), and the mousy girl with an eating disorder, Emma (Ciara Bravo, Big Time Rush). Charlie (Griffin Gluck, Private Practice) narrates the story from his coma bed, secretly visited by the father (Thomas Ian Nicholas, American Pie) who isn’t allowed to see him.
The mix of personalities is pretty good. A lot of boxes are checked, but the performers are all decent enough to sell the product, other than Astro, that is, who is nearly as unlikeable here as he was in the reality show in which he competed. But overall, while somewhat predictable, the relationships are compelling enough to keep the story going, as the kids individually pull the viewer’s heartstrings.
Of course, there are sappy scenes, even in hour one. A particular heart-to-heart between Jordi and Leo is obviously coming, and RED BAND SOCIETY delivers on that promise, asking for some pathos at the conclusion of a bit of fun. In this, it’s emotionally manipulative, but seemingly not in a malevolent way.
There is a staff watching over them, of course. Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer (The Help, Mom) plays the perfect “scary bitch” with a heart of gold, Nurse Jackson. She is offset by Rebecca Rittenhouse as bumbling, naïve Brittany. Surely the two of them will grow over time with one another’s help, much as the kids do. Rounding out the adult contingent is Dr. Jack McAndrew (Dave Annable, Brothers & Sisters), rocking the grey hair as he performers his duty with intelligence and compassion.
Maybe it’s a little simplistic to have such heroic healthcare providers, but RED BAND SOCIETY is a feel-good drama, and thus, needs characters to root for. The teens suffer enough from the viruses ravaging their bodies; they don’t require antagonistic grown-ups bringing them down, too. Instead, we get as cheery a picture as possible under the circumstances, which, while perhaps a tad realistic, makes the show quite watchable.
The wild card for me in this pilot is Ruben Garcia (Griffin Dunne, House of Lies, Dallas Buyers Club). Although not a main character, Ruben is the one adult shown as a patient. One of the kids mentions he’s a rich hypochondriac who will leave his fortune to the hospital, and we see him helping out the youngsters with their schemes. Clearly, the writers must put him here for a reason, so what is it? Will he help someone get through their emotional struggles, or provide an answer to a problem later on?
I’m sure RED BAND SOCIETY won’t be the best new series of the fall, but it is far from the worst, and at least it’s not just copying other series the way so many do. The message portrayed is one many viewers will connect to, or at least feel for, and since there’s no other optimistic drama like this running on the Big Four right now, it may find its niche. I certainly hope it does.
RED BAND SOCIETY airs Wednesdays beginning September 17th on FOX.