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‘Red Band Society’ Review: Prognosis Is Good, Though It Could Take More Risks

The Fox hospital series needs more surprises, but it’s worthy of an examination

Fox’s “Red Band Society” is special.

It’s an ensemble show comedy-drama that follows a group of kids dealing with the growing pains of pre-teen and teen emotions. But, they’re also dealing with, well, pain. The show is set in a hospital and all of the kids have fatal illnesses.

I’m sure many of you find the idea of spending an hour watching kids with terminal illnesses morbid.

Think about the last time you experienced a blackout and you were searching for a candle, a flashlight, or the circuit breakers. Had you ever wanted light back in your life any more than in that moment?

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That’s the appeal of watching “Red Band Society.” These terminally ill kids are searching for life harder than anyone in good health.

From Steven Spielberg‘s Amblin Television, the series stars Oscar winner Octavia Spencer as the nurse with the hard exterior, though she has a weakness for these kids. In contrast, “Brothers and Sisters” star Dave Annable plays the world renown pediatric cancer doctor, Dr. McAndrew, who wears his heart on his sleeve.

But, the pilot revolves around the kids. All of the actors do a pretty good job in the roles. The common (because it’s effective) way for the show to introduce the group to viewers comes in the form of two newcomers to the hospital: Kara (Zoe Levin), a 16-year-old cheerleader with an undiagnosed illness, and Jordi (Nolan Sotillo), a 16-year-old who illegally crosses the Mexican border into California to seek out treatment under Dr. McAndrew.

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But if the “fish out of water” times two characters isn’t enough to grasp what’s going down in the hospital, the show also has a narrator. Twelve-year-old Charlie (Griffin Gluck) is in a coma, yet he can hear and thus describe everything that’s happening in the hospital. He also introduces a supernatural element to the show in that he can appear to the other children when they’re knocked out or under anesthesia. This would be one of the few surprises offered in the show’s writing.

The group is rounded out by longtime hospital patient/resident Leo (Charlie Rowe), a 16-year-old who’s suffering from cancer that has already claimed one of his legs and who has become a bit lost in the process. And then there’s his best friend Dash (Brian Bradley aka Astro, the rapper from the first season of “The X Factor”). And finally, there’s 15-year-old Emma (Ciara Bravo), Leo’s on-again-off-again girlfriend, who suffers from an eating disorder and has a rough time accepting that she’s no longer the pediatric ward’s most eligible bachelorette after Kara’s arrival.

There are certainly some things to iron out writing-wise (though its actors claim this was the best script of pilot season). The writing is fairly predictable on the pilot, which plays a lot of emotional notes we’re all very familiar with on TV. The writers could take a chance at playing with characters’ actions, so that they surprise us more (my graduate screenwriting professor called this “crazy-ing it up”). Also with the use of two newcomers and a narrator, the pilot is leaning on too many writing crutches.

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Credit should be given to Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, the pilot’s director. The cinematography is beautiful and has the “surprise” factor I wish the writing had.

Problems aside, there’s a “Wonder Years” quality to “Red Band Society” that transports viewers back to those simple firsts in life, the coming of age rites of passage that we all instantly understand and can connect to. Add to that the understanding that the lights may go out at any moment for any of these kids and there’s certainly something special here.