Among the main characters of FOX's new drama “Red Band Society” (Wednesday at 9 p.m.), two suffer from cancer, one needs a heart transplant, and one is in a prolonged coma.
All of them are 16 years old or younger.
Fictional stories about seriously ill people are already fraught with emotion. When the ill people are kids, the inherent emotions are so overwhelming that a storyteller has to either address them head-on or work around them. You can heighten everything else to try to equal the feeling of tragedy and wasted potential, or you can underplay everything to keep the story from drowning in sadness.
“Red Band Society,” adapted by Margaret Nagle from the Catalan series “Polseres Vermelles,” tries both approaches at once, with mixed but mostly promising results. If it can pull back on some of its excesses – if it can be the good version of “Glee,” rather than the bad version, in a hospital – it could really be something.
First of all, Nagle needs to ease way back on the voiceover. In a season where it feels like every other new show needs a narrator to explain everything, “Red Band” has the chattiest narrator who explains the most. That it's Charlie (Griffin Gluck), the 12-year-old coma patient, adds some bite to the device – “Yeah,” Charlie tells us at one point, “this is me talking to you from a coma. Deal with it.” – and the audience probably needs some kind of a guide to both the world of extended-stay pediatric care and the many patients we meet in the pilot. But Charlie doesn't just tell us how the hospital works and who the kids are; he also spells out every important emotion and piece of characterization just to make sure we understand.
So when Charlie introduces us to cancer patient Leo (Charlie Rowe), he doesn't just tell us that Leo's been on the ward longer than anybody else, but that, “He used to be a leader, but lately he's pulling back.” Similarly, he walks us through every nuance of Leo's on-again, off-again relationship with eating disorder patient Emma (Ciara Bravo), and points out the threat Emma – long the only girl in Leo's circle of friends – feels from the arrival of mean cheerleader Kara (Zoe Levin).
The show has assembled a solid cast of young actors(*) who convey their characters' emotions so well that a lot of what Charlie tells us about them is redundant. Viewers are smart, even (or especially) the younger viewers this show is hoping to attract, and they don't need this much assistance. There's a tradition in teen dramas – including “The Breakfast Club,” another example of kids from different social strata being forced together by circumstance – of having each character announce their history and caste, but the “Red Band Society” pilot goes beyond even the traditional level. Charlie as a character is interesting, and his narration will have value as more doctors and patients shuffle in and out of the ward, but it needs to be dialed back overall.
(*) Plus “X Factor” alum Astro as cystic fibrosis patient Dash. Astro clearly doesn't have the performing skills of his co-stars, and the show wisely only uses him for comic relief in the pilot.
But the actors are good, and the writing makes most of the characters feel more specific than the different stereotypes they embody. (Even Kara – the closest “Red Band” comes to blatantly copying “Glee” – feels like a person by the end of the first hour.) And even though this is a show primarily about the kids, Nagle has surrounded them with some interesting and well-cast adult foils, including Octavia Spencer as the tough head nurse, Dave Annable as a pediatric surgeon, and Griffin Dunne as a wealthy hypochondriac who lives in the hospital, helps facilitate the kids' social lives, and provides most of the soundtrack's retro music.
If “Red Band” overdoes it in some areas, it's impressively restrained in others. Despite the dire circumstances of many of these patients – Jordi (Nolan Sotillo) arrives at the hospital on his own to petition Annable's Dr. McAndrew to amputate his cancer-filled leg – the show isn't an exercise in tear-jerking. We see the kids go to class, plan parties, flirt and goof around, and even exploit their ailments to get special treatment.
That restraint pays off beautifully in the closing sequence, involving Jordi preparing for his surgery, where the show finally asks you to be moved by his plight – and in a way that requires no added explanation from Charlie. It's a terrific conclusion, and in a fall season with few new pilots worth getting excited about, it positions “Red Band Society” as a show immediately worthy of attention.
There will be ups and downs, just like there are for most first-year series, and just like there are for many pediatric patients with conditions serious enough to warrant these extended stays. But there can be very good days in there, and I have hope that “Red Band Society” can find a way to diagnose its strengths and weaknesses and adjust accordingly.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org