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Red Band Society, Ep. 1.01, “Pilot” has heart but lacks depth

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Red Band Society, Season 1, Episode 1, “Pilot”
Written by Margaret Nagle
Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
Airs Wednesdays at 9pm ET on FOX

Red Band Society began as a remake of Catalan television series called Polseres Vermelles, which is about a terminally ill group of mismatched teens that live in a pediatric ward and band together as friends. The series was picked up by Amblin Entertainment, who then developed it for American television with former Boardwalk Empire writer Margaret Nagle. As a child, Nagle spent some time living in a pediatric ward alongside her comatose brother, which she has cited as the source of her inspiration when writing the treatment of the source material.

To set a coming of age drama in a hospital can be a unique and interesting premise for a television series, if done well and allowed to develop naturally. Unfortunately, what we are presented with in the pilot of Red Band Society is a show that is desperately trying to be a familiar high school drama set within a hospital. With the upcoming final season of Glee and the recent success of The Fault in Our Stars novel and film, could it be possible that this series got the green light mainly because it’s trying to mine the teen terminal illness genre, as well as being a potential replacement for FOX’s exiting hit show?

It’s hard to say at what point this show became a Glee stand in, because there seemed to be a lot of potential for the series based on what Nagle said in interviews. Perhaps the first step towards replication came with hiring one of Glee’s in-house directors, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, whose work on this pilot does nothing more than simulate the visual style and tone of Glee. But that’s not being entirely fair, as the writing also fails to bring much originality to the table, with elements taken from The Breakfast Club (whose influence is felt strongly and made explicit with the dialogue) and character archetypes that follow the same pattern as the average teen drama series. There’s the nurse with the tough exterior who means well (in place of a teacher),  the milquetoast optimist well-to-do doctor that is certain to clash with the tough-exterior nurse, the clueless and annoyingly cheerful nurse, the bitchy cheerleader, etc.

Although the adults are not completely developed in the pilot, this is forgivable, as the teens tend to be the main attraction for this type of series, so it makes sense to put them at the forefront. Of the various adults introduced, Octavia Spencer’s Nurse Jackson is the only character that has any actual credibility and that is solely due to Spencer’s ability to convey a fully dimensional outspoken nurse, her prickly nature clear even if it hadn’t been spelled out and underlined on a coffee cup that says “Scary Bitch.” In comparison, Dr. Jack McAndrews is a real dud of a character; no offense to Dave Annable–there may be nothing he can do to bring life to this generic Will Schuester-type.

As for the teens, there are six members in total, only three of whom have any real substance. There are Leo, Jordi, and Kara, who each get interesting story elements to play with, as well as a possibility for growth. Leo is a leader and the force that bands the group together, Jordi has an arc of overcoming fear about losing his leg, and Kara suffers from being an unlikable bitch because that’s the only way she can get attention from anyone, since she gets none from her parents. As for members Emma, Dash, and Charlie, they’re not given as much development. For instance, Emma gets stuck with the typical girl-in-the-middle-of-a-love-triangle plot, while Dash, although likable, is a somewhat despicable horny toad. Lastly, Charlie is in a coma, and stuck with voice over narration duty.

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The pilot does have some moments that are genuinely enjoyable, albeit heavily ham-fisted. For example, there is a dance sequence between Jordi and Emma that is the best scene of the episode, wherein he asks her to dance with him one last time before he has to have his leg taken off. It plays out very awkward and sweet and is accompanied by the very fitting song choice of Odessa’s “I Will Be There.”

The strangest and most fascinating part of the pilot has to be the scene where Kara has her near death experience and communicates with Charlie. What is mostly interesting about this aspect of the show is how quickly she accepts it as fact. There is no moment of amazement or questioning if it really happened. This show is telling its audience that Kara can communicate with Charlie, who is in a coma. Will she do it again? If this series wants to set itself apart from the normal tropes of the average high school drama, they should explore more of this strange psychic connection between life and death. It is very unusual, akin to a Twilight Zone episode, but still somehow grounded in its own sense of reality and is an unexpected turn from an otherwise rather predictable episode.

This pilot may not have been the best of what this series has to offer. It is has clearly been marred by trying too hard to draw in the Glee audience and could also be adhering too closely to the source material, which does sometimes happen. Hopefully this episode is not a sign of what is to come, but rather indicative of the hoops that the show had to jump through in order to get its foot in the fall season door. Nagle has said in interviews to expect more backstory for all the characters in future episodes, with paralleled flashbacks and more of the strange psychic communication with Charlie the coma patient. The next few episodes will surely give a better idea of what this series can be, and hopefully it will start building its own sensibility and better utilize the hospital setting to set itself apart from the typical high school drama series.

-JP


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