Although Fox's hospital-set dramedy “Red Band Society” is one of the few network series launching this fall that could reasonably be described as unique, showrunner Margaret Nagle spent a lot of time discussing influences at the TCA 2014 summer press tour.
For one, the series is based on a successful Spanish drama called “Polseres Vermelles” that launched in 2011. Steven Spielberg snagged the remake rights for DreamWorks the same year and an American adaptation has been in the works ever since. Just like the original, the show follows six teens of various backgrounds united by the fact they're all facing long-term hospital stays for rare diseases. Oscar winner Octavia Spencer plays the lead nurse in their ward, equal parts bossy and nurturing.
If the premise sounds a bit like “The Breakfast Club,” with a hospital filling in for detention, the cast and crew agree it's not far off.
“That's what I thought of when I read the script,” said co-star Zoe Levin, who plays a bitchy cheerleader forced to abandon her role of high school Queen Bee. “It's so character driven and all these characters are very unique. That's the beauty of their friendship — it's so unlikely. Kara wouldn't be caught dead with these people in high school. [The hospital] is breaking down everyone's walls and barriers.”
“I saw 'The Breakfast Club' in the theater, and life has changed now — I'm no longer one of the teenagers, I'm one of the old people,” added Wilson Cruz, the “My So-Called Life” veteran who plays another member of the nursing staff. “You think you know who these characters are, but you're going to discover they're not exactly who they think they are. You'll be surprised by who they become to you and who they become to each other.”
Of course, in “The Breakfast Club,” audiences didn't have to worry about the possibility of a terminal illness creeping into the story. But Nagle was quick to correct the misconception that just because the teen characters are in the hospital, they might be facing a death sentence.
“Pediatrics goes through age 24 and 85% of all kids who go to the hospital with any one of these diseases recover. [The show] is really about the time you spend in the hospital, how it changes you and what you learn,” Nagle explained. “It's not a show that has a body count, unlike other shows on TV,” she added later.
That's one reason Nagle expects the show to take its time with story, pointing to a recent dearly departed drama as a key inspiration. “'Breaking Bad' is a series where the whole five [seasons happen] in a one year period. That whole story is eight months I believe.” Nagle estimated the timeline “Red Band” will span in a single season to be about half that: “Episode two is day two, episode three is week one. By the end of season one we will have been four months in the hospital.”
And she also freely admits taking narrative cues from another one of the finest shows of the moment: “Like 'Orange is the New Black' we're also going to go into backstories about our characters and playing around with the timeline as we come into our present. When you're in a set environment, like 'Orange is the New Black' is, you need to go out of that environment and find out how did they get there.”
Beyond knowing the ins and outs of quality TV, it was clear from the panel that Nagle is equally well versed in her show's subject matter. Part of it comes from personal experience — her brother was in a coma for an extended period of time when they were both small children and she named the show's narrator, snarky comatose kid Charlie, after him. She also regularly consults with friends and family members who work in the medical field to make sure the series is as realistic as possible.
“The arc of season one is the story of Charlie [played by Griffin Gluck],” Nagle explained. “His story, his emergence. My brother, Charlie, was in a coma for a very long time. He's a remarkable guy, my older brother. It's inspired by his story. He's told me about things he could hear in the coma, smell in the coma, he was experiencing life all around him.”
Before audiences get to know any of the teens, they'll likely see the show sold as a vehicle for Spencer. Like her co-star in “The Help,” Viola Davis, Spencer chose to sign on as a full-time TV series regular this year. Asked to explain the decision, Spencer initially cracked: “I got really tired of being a sex symbol,” and added more seriously: “I wanted to really focus on a character I could evolve with as an actress. It was the best pilot I've ever read and I've read quite a few through the years. You get really bored … We're not a procedural. It's not the typical drama or typical comedy, it walks a fine line.”
Co-star Charlie Rowe, an 18-year-old Brit who shaved his head for the role of the teen clique's charismatic leader, believes “Red Band Society” does have something unique at its core: “Healthy lucky people don't go to hospitals very often — maybe once or twice a year. They're very alienating, scary places. But we all go through adolescence. The reason [the show] works so well is it connects these two opposing themes of alienating hospitals and childhood and thwacks them together.”