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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Red Band Society is a confused, sentimental cancer drama

Illustration for article titled Red Band Society is a confused, sentimental cancer drama
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Red Band Society’s premise makes no sense. The show follows six kids cooped up in the glass cage of a modern pediatric ward in Los Angeles. There’s a thin strand of plausibility in the idea that a group of kids in long-term care could end up staying for so long that they become friends. There’s even good basis for kids with osteosarcoma being there long-term (as two of the characters in the show are), or for patients who are in a coma but still on life support. But the Red Band Society pilot stretches that thread to the breaking point over and over again. Patients who are healthy enough to hijack a car and make an illicit beer run are probably healthy enough to receive at-home care. An anorexia patient would likely recover in an outpatient rehab program, instead of being kept in the same ward as cancer patients. And unless they were all very wealthy orphans or wards of a far more capable state, their parents and the fear of medical debt would be omnipresent.

By the end of the pilot, the show’s pediatric ward seems like a funky college dorm with maid service, and any tether to a patient’s lived reality, especially in the American healthcare system, is lost entirely. This kind of thing happens all the time, especially in shows that are aimed at a younger demographic (or are going for the all-important “family” viewership). The willing suspension of disbelief makes for great storytelling. But it’s odd and unsettling to gloss over the realities of pediatric illness in our healthcare system—especially when the show purports to be examining it without maudlin artifice. Hitting the right balance between sentiment and realism is not easy—The Fault In Our Stars became a breakout hit by managing that tension. Red Band Society tries to handle it by swinging back and forth between the two poles—playing with light high-school drama and dream sequences one minute, before snapping back to the horrible reality of a teenage boy coming to terms with a pending amputation.

And that’s where the implausibility comes back into play. Red Band Society asks the audience to take it seriously—oh, but wait, not too seriously. It’s a bit of flirtatious whiplash that is a lot like Ryan Murphy’s work with Glee, the snarky and sweet high-school drama that changes its rules in every episode. At its core, what Red Band Society wants to be is a slightly different high-school show, able to draw on the easy emotional stakes of teenage romance and hospital drama. And as a result, much like Glee, it comes off as manipulative.

It really does not help that the final montage of the pilot episode is scored to Coldplay’s “Every Teardrop Is A Waterfall.” Is the story moving? Oh, absolutely. But Red Band Society is beating the viewer over the head with it, using Henry V’s “band of brothers” speech and the only vaguely explained totem of red wristbands to strengthen its potency. Indeed, it says a lot about the pilot episode that the closing montage is the only part that works well; it’s treacly, but at least it knows it’s treacly.

Red Band Society would not exist without The Fault In Our Stars—even the osteosarcoma pays homage to John Green’s young-adult novel—but it is in fact based on a Catalan show with the same (translated) title. It’s very similar in casting and story, too: There’s one more girl and one less boy, but the boy in the coma still narrates the whole thing. Unfortunately for Red Band Society, that faithfulness contributes to the show’s issues. The style of the Catalan show clearly worked for Spanish audiences—the show did very well—but the voice-over feels clunky and too-precious in the American version. Plus, the coma patient, Charlie, can communicate with certain characters, but only when they’re also unconscious—introducing a level of magical realism to weigh down an already unwieldy show.

Basically, there are two Red Band Societys. There’s the one that would get into the real drama of the American healthcare system—that would use the basic indignities of dying slowly as fodder for stories about these teenagers trying to have some kind of normal life. And there’s one that would be a children’s show in a special kind of school, some peppier version of Never Let Me Go in which all the kids lived and took classes and were slightly sick together. The first is depressing, to be sure. But the second makes being ill look fun and interesting, and that’s terrifying. The premiere tries to do too much with too little, and even though the cast gives it their all, Red Band Society never finds the right note.