Who: “Red Band Society,” aired on network TV, specifically on FOX, during the 2014-2015 season.
What: “Red Band Society,” a drama following teenage patients in a hospital’s pediatric terminal ward, with the head nurse played by Octavia Spencer (The Help).
When: The series premiered on FOX, Wednesday, September 17, 2014. The series finale aired on February 7, 2015, after only one season of thirteen episodes.
Where: The show is set in Los Angeles, California.
Why: I picked up this show when shopping for pilots during the 2014-2015 TV season (a yearly ritual for this viewer and this blog, no matter how far behind I am). I said:
“The show is produced by Steven Spielberg, features the irrepressible Octavia Spencer (The Help), and explores an all too real subsection of society that defies normal social situations because it’s self-contained in a hospital. The trailer was well put together, and so now I’m intrigued.”
What this means is that the trailer sold me on the show, despite the fact that the show is set in a hospital and features a prominent cast of teens. The trailer did its job. The pilot, however, did not – at least, not for me.
I also elected to still give the show a look despite its cancellation because a) I seemed to be fairly certain when I picked it up based upon the strength of the trailer, and b) Fox was the canceling network. Fox is a cancel-happy network. No, they will never live down Firefly.
How – as in How Was It?
The pilot/premiere rating scale:
***** – I HAVE TO WATCH EVERYTHING. HOLY SMOKES!
**** – Well, it certainly seems intriguing. I’m going to keep watching, but I see possible pitfalls in the premise.
*** – I will give it six episodes and see what happens. There are things I like, and things I don’t. We’ll see which “things” are allowed to flourish.
** – I will give it three episodes. Chances are, I’m mainly bored, but there is some intrigue or fascination that could hold it together. No matter how unlikely.
* – Pass on this one, guys. It’s a snoozer/not funny/not interesting/not my cup of tea… there are too many options to waste time on this one.
Red Band Society = *1/2 (ouch)
Charlie Hutchison (Griffin Gluck) is a comatose patient, but he has the ability to see others like him, others confined to the terminal ward of Ocean Park hospital: Emma (Clara Bravo) is anorexic; Leo (Charlie Rowe) is an amputee and former cancer patient in rehab; Jordi (Nolan Sotillo) is a new/recent cancer patient; and Dash (Astro) is a patient with cystic fibrosis. Charlie also sees Kara (Zoe Levin), a cheerleader whose full social life is dramatically upended when an enlarged heart forces her admittance to the hospital. Charlie tells us about life in the ward, overseen by no-nonsense head nurse Dena (Spencer), and about the patients, teenagers who just want to be like other teenagers but are prevented from living normal lives because of the inevitability of their early deaths. Somehow these teens find a way to survive and to cope, particularly when Leo inducts them into their own special club, the Red Band Society, based upon the red bracelets worn by terminal patients.
This viewer does not know what was expected when I picked up the show. I am not offended by teen dramas; I watch a fair few shows that have historically (or currently) aired on the CW. The trailer for Red Band Society seemed to stylistically paint one portrait of how the show would progress and transpire, but the pilot lacked the same stylistic overtone or did not strike the notes presented by the teaser – granted, the latter was only a teaser, but in this case, the marketing may have oversold the virtues of the product. This viewer, however, expected more of a balance between the adult and teen characters, and the pilot almost exclusively focused on the teens. What’s more, it recycled tropes so often used in teen dramas, primarily in the social constructs of the “outside,” as in outside the hospital. Kara, for example, is described as the “Queen Bee;” of course, as Queen Bees so frequently learn at various stages of life, she’s not the “Queen Bee” in the ward, despite her rebellious spirit, black widow sense of flirtatiousness, and estimations to the contrary. What’s a teen drama without a Queen Bee, though? Someone has to be the villain, no matter how overused the trope may be.
Red Band Society sets the stage early on: this story is about how the patients’ lives are different inside the ward versus outside the hospital. Their lives are different, and they, as people, are the same but different from people who don’t have to live in hospitals. Despite being confined, they have struggles and angst. They have joys and sorrows. They have hormones and new loves. On top of these pieces, though, the show invites us to remember, as if we could forget, that these young characters are dying or getting better or struggling against remission. They have more to cope with than the average teen, in case you didn’t understand this when I started this paragraph.
While this is all fine and good, this sort of pedantic, in-your-face perspective can easily be gleaned from the trailer and brief written synopses published before the pilot aired. The pilot, however, failed to establish a direction, a purpose, for the younger group. It failed to integrate our adult and younger characters, beyond some caring commentary from the hospital personnel or some stern looks from Dena toward the more antic-driven characters like Dash, until she enjoys a private, pity-filled smile about those antics behind relevant characters’ backs. Mostly, this viewer was completely turned off by all of the younger characters with the exception of Charlie, because he was in a coma and providing all of the hand-holding narration except during a dream sequence or two, and Leo, because he is the oldest and possibly the wisest and certainly the most experienced at living in this type of situation. The pilot did nothing to establish why we should care for any of these children, in a fictional sense, other than to say: “hey, they’re here dying, and that’s really bad!” The idea of the “Red Band Society” is kind of neat, using the bracelets as a symbol of the characters’ shared plights. Then again, it’s also kind of the sad version of The Babysitters Club; thus, I realize that I may have developed some inherent prejudices almost from the get-go because I may not be in the target audience for this show – and that’s okay, if the target audience felt some sort of connection to this program’s premise that I missed.
Unfortunately, the show failed to nab that target audience, and ratings did not sustain. For my money, the program had two fatal flaws: most of the younger actors were annoying at best and not always competent in their performances (again with the exceptions of Gluck and Rowe), and the pilot was slow and not well plotted. It lacked direction. It did not tell us anything beyond a loose premise focused upon dying kids who have the same teenage tendencies that healthy kids do. So, if the idea was to attract members of the Glee audience, the pre-teen and teen set, it was kind of a bummer, despite its serious subject matter, because the show lacked any galvanizing characters for which to root or despise or any issues to which to relate. There might have been a villain in Kara, but anyone could see she was really just rebelling and acting out against her two moms and her plight of life’s essential unfairness. Even Spencer, a gifted actress especially deft at being sassy when called upon, was sort of clipped in this first episode. For adults, then, what is the draw? Unless one finds his/herself already a fan of any of the actors in the piece. The whole set-up did not leave this viewer wanting more – either the writers failed to adapt this property in an interesting way (as it is a French import given the American/English wash), the producers failed to establish a clear vision and lay some necessary groundwork in the first episode, or the pilot director failed to set a tone that would entice viewers to keep watching. Coupled with a mixed bag of early performances, this viewer cannot blame Fox for canceling the show.
There may be a passionate cult fan-base out there – indeed, they attempted to save the show with the usual petitions and fan campaigns, since nothing can fire up the American public as much as the cancellation of a television program. Perhaps, the show got better as it went on, as so often they do; I have to believe there is a realism about this program that some found refreshing. Unfortunately, I could tell that this show was not going to be my cup of tea because I don’t watch teen dramas, especially those created for the sake of being about teens and their dramas. I also typically shy away from medical dramas because they permeate the television lineups. I look for the story and how well that story is told; finding no real cohesive one here and being rather bored, unfortunately, by the pilot, I chose not to watch more than one episode. Had I not checked into the show after its cancellation (over the summer, in fact), I might have rated the pilot two stars if watched while the show was still airing and then given it a couple more chances, but I couldn’t bring myself to watch another episode, knowing there were so many others I wanted to try to watch. This viewer didn’t see it as worth it, and that reaction, I think, is telling.
It’s not that Red Band Society was a bad idea, and the pilot itself did not overtly offend this viewer. There was some nice camera work and good shots; decent cinematography; and the adult actors offered able performances if not electrifying ones. It was nice to see Wilson Cruz again, as this viewer still remembers his tenure on My So-Called Life, when he acted in a far better written teen drama. Instead, it all comes down to execution in a way that would influence viewers to stick with the show. The pilot did not have not this quality even if subsequent episodes might have, and the pilot is critical to establishing that ratings foothold and to grabbing viewers’ attentions enough to want to pursue subsequent episodes. It was a nice idea in theory; however, in execution, it did not have the broad appeal to ensure its survival. It certain did not entice me, and I’m more patient than most, which means that, sadly, Red Band Society was dead on arrival upon this viewer’s first watch.
Red Band Society is recommended to fans of typical teen dramas, such as Beverly Hills 90210 or Dawson’s Creek, or maybe Party of Five or Degrassi because the teens’ issues are actually legit, credible, realistic, and less soapy. The difference is that this drama is set in a hospital, and the teens are critically ill. Also, this show isn’t 10-20 years old, but hey, maybe this viewer has lost touch, since I’m not exactly a teen anymore.
THE FUTURE OF THE SHOW:
Canceled! Red Band Society was canceled after its first season due to low ratings. The entire first season is available for purchase via Amazon/Prime.