Fall Pilot Review: RED BAND SOCIETY

     September 17, 2014

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It’s been a long time since Fox invested in a teen-oriented drama.  The last major success was arguably The O.C.‘s launch in 2003.  Since then, networks like ABC Family and The CW have mostly taken the reins on younger-skewing series that incorporate both drama and comedy (and some of the most attractive teenagers — or adults playing teenagers — on the planet).  Red Band Society is no different, except its hook is that its teenagers live together on the pediatric ward of a hospital, fighting to survive cancer, cystic fibrosis, heart failure and eating disorders.  Hit the jump for whether Red Band Society deserves a place in your Fall viewing schedule.

red-band-society-octavia-spencerIt’s always hard to get a sense of what a show will really be from its pilot.  There’s not a lot (if any) nuance when it comes to plot or characters, and there’s still a chance for the show to, later on, tweak some of the aspects that don’t quite land right initially.  Red Band Society‘s first hour does everything it needs to do in terms of setup for future episodes, putting its cast into easily explainable types (so easily that they can be written on a coffee cup — Octavia Spencer‘s Nurse Jackson’s says “Scary Bitch”).  And while it’s dealing with a really difficult, emotional topic (sick kids), it finds a good balance that doesn’t careen too far into the saccharine.

There’s a lot about the first 20 minutes of Red Band Society that feels like Fox’s other teen (but not really) drama Glee.  (Red Band Society was created by Boardwalk Empire writer Margaret Nagle, and based on a Catalan series). Characters are beautiful and witty, and fit into easily delineated high school categories.  Kara (Zoe Levin) is an evil cheerleader, Leo (Charlie Rowe) is the group’s snarky leader, Dash (Brian Bradley) is a sex-crazed cool kid who knows where to get the weed, Emma (Ciara Bravo) is the shy artsy-type, while Jordi (Nolan Sotillo) is the sensitive one.  Narrating their stories as well as his own is Charlie (Griffin Gluck), who is in a coma, but is able to hear everything that goes on, and also exists in a kind of netherworld where he can communicate with the others when they too are in between life and death.

red-band-society-3That last part is one of the major aspects of Red Band Society that don’t really work, and it’s not the only time a suspension of disbelief is necessary; the hospital rooms are the size of small apartments, and look like them as well.  But in general, the teen drama that exists among the leads is enough to hold the show together, and its funny parts and social media savvy, as well as some genuinely emotional moments (“Your body isn’t you, your soul is you, and they can never cut into your soul,” one boy tells another, who is about to lose his leg in an operation to stop his cancer), help keep a balance between being overly maudlin or too glib.

Accompanying the teenagers are, as always, a few adults to help keep them in check (or in this case, encourage them).  Nurse Jackson runs the place, but there’s also the McDreamy Dr. McAndrew (Dave Annable), and cutesy newbie Nurse Brittany (Rebecca Rittenhouse), who is still learning the ropes.  Like the teens, these characters are all easily definable, and they work.  But just like Charlie’s coma narration, there’s a weird twist that doesn’t quite sit right, and that is the rich hippie hypochondriac (and major hospital benefactor) who smokes pot and helps the kids plan rooftop parties.

For those wary of investing in a Fox series because the network has a long history of hitting the “cancel” button extremely quickly, Red Band Society may actually get more of a chance than most because of its executive producer.  Steven Spielberg and Amblin Television Studios helped develop the series, a pedigree which may increase its chances of sticking around. For every step in the right direction, though (like using Henry V as the requisite Shakespearean metaphor and touchstone instead of Romeo and Juliet), Red Band Society runs the risk of turning off certain viewers with every sincerely-spoken “YOLO!” (of which, in the pilot, there is only one).

red-band-society-2Unlike Glee, which was built for crossover potential (it was about teenagers, but appealed to adults — at least, initially), Red Band Society seems happy to consider itself as just a teen show, where adults are ancillary.  It has a family feel to it (despite the often and casual drug use), and has the potential to be a good series.  Ultimately, like the society the kids form to help support each other through their pain and surgeries, fans will probably become deeply invested, while others just don’t get it.  On Fox, though, that’s a risky prospect.

Premiere Date: Wednesday, September 17th at 9 p.m. ET on Fox.

Pilot Rating: Good

Chance of Cancellation: Moderate

DVR Priority: Low to Moderate

Red Band Society Review

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