'Red Band Society': The Gooey Teen Drama Every Generation Deserves
When Fox presented its new drama Red Band Society to critics over the summer, creator Margaret Nagle stressed that it was not a derivative of any particular story of sick teenagers that has perhaps permeated the culture in the last five years. Instead, it was inspired by the story of her own brother, Charlie, who was in a coma for a long time and later explained that he could hear what was going on the whole time.
That inspired Nagle's narrator, also named Charlie, a young boy in a coma whose voice narrates the story of a group of teenagers sharing space in the hospital while being treated for various illnesses. They're overseen by caretakers including a head nurse played by the terrific Octavia Spencer, a doctor played by Dave Annable (graying appealingly after not long ago being the young pup on Brothers & Sisters), and another nurse played by Wilson Cruz, who has been away from sensitive dramas about teenagers far too long after so memorably playing Rickie Vasquez on My So-Called Life.
Red Band Society -- so named for rituals surrounding hospital bracelets — proceeds, it must be said, along some very predictable lines. Among the teenagers are a mean cheerleader, a closed-off bad boy who needs love, a sensitive girl with an eating disorder, a new kid coming to terms with the painful idea of having his leg amputated ... it's nothing you wouldn't expect from the premise, and at times, it tips uncomfortably into the maudlin, to be sure. Annable's kind doctor, for instance, gives in to a kid's desire to become his patient by smiling warmly and saying he doesn't think "no" is in the kid's vocabulary. These are lines that could have been written better and less obviously, with a lighter hand.
And certainly, you don't want to think too hard about the plausibility of insurance companies keeping kids who don't seem to be receiving all that much constant care in a hospital for months and months where they eat and go to school and live in the hospital the way they might live in a college dorm. (Nagle says this is more common than you'd think, but was a little wiggly on the question of whether the show will deal straightforwardly with problems of who in the world pays for all of this.)
But if it seems manipulative to create a show about ailing adolescents, keep in mind that most stories about groups of teenagers are about ailing adolescents — kids in pain are the kids other kids love and relate to and always have. Everybody in The Breakfast Club is hurting; that's the entire point. Ferris Bueller's Day Off is, tonally, a kid breaking his sick friend out of the figurative hospital for a day of fun. Everybody in Glee is hurting. The kids on Friday Night Lights were hurting, as were the ones on the aforementioned My So-Called Life. Adolescence, done right and with resonance, is very often about kids learning to relate to each other by being compassionate about other people's battles, and it's not necessarily fatal that this particular show makes those battles so literal; makes the relevant maladies text instead of subtext.
Part of me believes that the availability of a show like this, made with kindness toward its characters if not an abundance of inventiveness, is sort of the birthright of each generation of young teenagers. We all deserve our goopy montages that succeed both because of and despite Coldplay, our caring adults who seem to understand, our reluctant friendships and shy romances. And if you're going to make one, make it with Octavia Spencer. Make it with Wilson Cruz. Make it with a little wry humor (as when a kindly volunteer insists on playing the guitar for patients, whether they want to hear it or not).
It's not the show that Friday Night Lights was, or the show that My So-Called Life was, by any means. But there's a place in the world for shows about adolescence with big, beating hearts totally exposed. And Red Band Society is, at least, that.
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