Fox’s new teen drama Red Band Society is one of our favorite pilots from this fall’s newest crop. Exploring the backdrop of kids living in the pediatric ward of a hospital, if you’re a fan of The Fault in Our Stars and clever dialogue with real feeling under the surface, meet your favorite show of the fall.
Comparing it to The Fault in Our Stars is too easy, really. Red Band Society belongs to the same family of teen shows like Freaks and Geeks and Friday Night Lights, something beyond a soap opera and more than pretty rich teenagers inventing new ways to get drunk and sleep with each other. It’s saying something authentic about the teenage experience in a way we haven’t seen it before. It’s unique. It’s a standout amidst a TV season of recycled ideas and clever gimmicks that would have worked better as movies. Even the voice-over isn’t obnoxious.
There’s so much to love, and there’s just one thing we’d nitpick, so let’s break it down.
It’s not in love with its own cleverness
Sure, the kids are quippy, but that’s de rigueur among both teen dramas and actual teens these days. They’re patients in a long-term hospital care. Some of them are facing the possibility of being terminal cases. They deflect with sarcasm and witty banter, but not to the point where it distracts from the genuine moments that come later. They’re not walking one-liners, and it means that scenes where Leo (Charlie Rowe) fiercely promises Jordi (Nolan Sotillo) that his leg removal surgery won’t change who he is as a person, or when Jordi asks Emma (Ciara Bravo) to be his last dance on two legs really land. They’re teenagers, they joke around, but there’s a beautiful sincerity that’s still reflective in almost all of them.
Mental illness is treated with the same gravity as the physical kind
Emma’s eating disorder is demonstrated as being every bit as valid of a reason for her long-term stay in pediatrics as Leo’s cancer or Charlie’s coma. It’s a refreshing approach, to say the least. Emma’s insistence that she doesn’t do drugs, drink or smoke is an especially poignant moment. Control is so important to her, and we see how deeply it frustrates her to not be able to just conquer her demons when she’s so clever at both schoolwork and pulling one over on adults.
Octavia Spencer, Octavia Spencer, Octavia Spencer
She shines as gruff Nurse Jackson, whose takeout coffee cup reads “Scary B****,” a moniker she wears with pride. She’s deeply invested in the patients she cares about, she puts up with no nonsense, and she doesn’t suffer fools, but underneath that, she’s got a soft heart. She’s been working in Pediatrics a long time, clearly long enough to see a lot of patients come and go, and not all of them get better. We see that it’s taken a toll on her, but it hasn’t damaged her ability to, as she puts it, “make an investment” in a handful of favorite patients, with a sixth sense for knowing when her favorites are up to no good.
However, there’s one thing we think Red Band Society could work on in a big way.
While Zoe Levin is great in the role and gives a few small glimpses of humanity into the bitter, nasty shell of a girl that Kara comes off as, there’s something about Kara that hasn’t quite gelled with the rest of the cast yet. Some of that’s to be expected. She is, after all, the new kid on the ward, but some of it makes her feel as though she’s stepped out of a different show entirely.
Specifically, some of her dialogue and character beats make her feel like she’s a transplant straight from the first season of Glee. Her jokes are more cruel than clever, the weird Osama bin Ladin Halloween costume is straight out of the Sue Sylvester playbook and it doesn’t help that the opening scene of the pilot is incredibly reminiscent of Glee’s series opener, too. She’s the one piece that doesn’t match the rest of the series’ tone.
Overall, though, the pilot is fantastic. Heartfelt without being cloyingly sentimental, hilarious without being too breezy, and wholly human. We’re on board for the whole season.