Several fall television pilots are already available on Hulu, so I sat down and watched one of the more intriguing fall television offerings: FOX’s hour-long comedy Red Band Society. With Octavia Spencer starring, the show appears to be Glee meets The Fault in Our Stars (without the singing for the most part) highlighting the lives of a handful of teens and hospital personnel who work in the long-term stay ward of a hospital.
The beginning was classic Glee — lots of quirky teens with vocabularies a little too advanced for high school teens, snarky comebacks and snappy camera cuts. The jokes held all of the hallmarks of Glee, which drew the bulk of its non-musical entertainment by exploring what happened when a bunch of over-the-top high school stereotypes had to learn how to harmonize.
I wasn’t optimistic. What kept me watching was the voiceover in the first ten minutes of the show promising that these people from different backgrounds will become a family. In other words, they were stereotypes, but as time went on, they’d become less so. So, I stayed and found myself pleasantly surprised by what I was watching.
Keeping in line with The Fault in Our Stars’ theme of portraying children in hospitals as anything other than the proverbial “Sick Kid” (think Pollyanna — a weak and wholly sympathetic and benign character who wishes good on the universe), Red Band Society introduces us to six hospital patients: cancer patients Dash (Astro), Leo (Charlie Rowe) and Jordi (Nolan Sotillo); anorexic Emma (Ciara Bravo); Kara (Zoe Levin), the heartless cheerleader who ironically needs a heart transplant; and Charlie (Griffin Gluck), who is in a coma.
Charlie is the most interesting of the characters, who narrates the series from inside of his coma, in much of the same vein that Canadian series Saving Hope does. Red Band Society buys into the belief that patients in comas can hear and process sound (and in Red Band Charlie’s case, smell too?). However, Saving Hope is a hospital drama love story. Red Band is very much about friendship between misfits.
With the exception of Spencer’s character, Nurse Jackson, the rest of the hospital staff fades into the background, though their roles as The Adults is made known throughout the episode. We don’t see these kids’ parents for the most part, and the guardians we do see seem to not have it together. It’s clear that these staff members are their caretakers and parental figures in their lives. Nurse Jackson is well written and not your average sassy Black nurse. Curiously, Spencer plays her with an understated blend of compassion, tough love, understanding and fatigue (she’s in the hospital for almost a day-long shift in the first episode), making her anything but a caricature.
Red Band Society does marginally better on the diversity front than The Fault in Our Stars did, though as much as I love John Green and his work, that’s not saying much. Including Spencer’s Nurse Jackson, there are three characters of color out of nine. Dash, is introduced in a pretty stereotypical way. Red Band Society does not shy away from using background wash music in the same way that Grey’s Anatomy does.
While the white kids get peppy indie pop songs in their background, Dash gets the rap song. In addition, the one same-sex attraction interaction on the show (albeit one-sided) is played for laughs as a stereotypically geeky girl pursues Kara. Charlie, the other character of color, is multiracial, a fact that is barely hinted at in the pilot; if you blinked, you missed it. Also, he spends the majority of his time in the coma, so he barely speaks unless it’s in a voiceover.
It’s a reminder that comedy has traditionally not been the best place for minorities. Red Band Society, like a lot of comedies that have come before it (and some very current comedies, like Fresh Off the Boat, which will premiere in the fall television cycle), takes the cheap shots at stereotypes because it’s easy and we’ve already been programmed to laugh at things like the girl going after someone completely out of her league—bonus points if the object of her affection is also a girl who’s straight).
However, Red Band Society subtly breaks down all of the teens’ stereotypes throughout the pilot. For example, Kara is the extremely popular cheerleader, but no one likes her. It’s hinted that her parents are clueless and don’t give her any attention, which is a commonly used story line to explain the bitchiness of a popular character.
Just when you think the show is singing the same old song you notice there is no poor little rich girl story here because Kara has already been portrayed as an utterly terrible person. In an interesting move, she suffers the consequences of her privilege, as she’s put at the bottom of the heart transplant list because of her long and varied history of drug abuse. We empathize but don’t sympathize, and though she finds herself performing a couple selfless actions in the pilot, it’s not enough to redeem her. Kara isn’t getting off easy. She has a long way to go.
All of the major characters in Red Band Society, like Kara, are multi-faceted and so caught up in their own flaws that their respective sicknesses become more like afterthoughts in the show, which is the way it should be. A disease is only part of a person — not the whole person. If Red Band Society keeps up this pattern (and it may or may not at this point — the pilot left that unclear), the show can become a smart and quirky deconstruction of teen stereotypes. Through characters like Nurse Jackson and Kara, the show has already shown the power to take characterization a step farther—they just need to keep up the momentum.
However, if the show follows the tired path upon which it is marketed (an actual ad for the show shows the main characters standing a against a wall with stereotypes like “scary bitch” and “coma boy” written above them), then we’re just going to be left with Glee in a hospital. No one wants to see that.
Watch the Red Band Society pilot, available for free streaming on Hulu.