[This is a review of the Red Band Society series premiere. There will be SPOILERS.]
In a television landscape that is ever trending towards the bleak and nihilistic, Fox's latest drama dares to search for hope where none should exist. Red Band Society could be the next critical darling of 2014, with a pilot that is near perfect. So, what makes this show guided by Steven Spielberg and Margaret Nagle (Boardwalk Empire) so special?
Well, it all stems from that rarest of words, "hope." If the trailers for this series led you to believe that this was just The Fault in Our Stars for television, then you were sorely misinformed. Sure, there are teenagers with cancer and other various life threatening illnesses, but there also exists a fearless desire for the miraculous that we don't find in many dramas today.
Death and dying are topics most of us would like to avoid discussing, but when it comes to entertainment, popular series like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead serve the subject up in bucket fulls of blood, rape and gruesome murders for us to feast our eyes upon. Both of the shows previously mentioned do this in such a fashion as to create as sense of escapism for its audience. The horror exists eight-feet in front of you, but it's so fantastical that a disconnect occurs, allowing you (this reviewer included) to enjoy what we're seeing without the fear of a dragon or zombie eating our flesh. What Red Band Society attempts to do is much more difficult.
There's no risk in saying that we have all known someone, whether it's a teenager, or a grandparent who has been in the hospital due to a fatal illness. The disconnect does not exist in this environment, which makes everything more real and uncomfortable. Nagle does a beautiful job by making one feel that even when you might have to lose your leg, you can still have a support group, led by a Peter Pan-like figure named Leo Roth (Charlie Rowe) to be your guardian angel. Sickness is no laughing matter, but Nagle has somehow found a way to put a smile on our faces even if you have tears running down your cheeks at the same time.
Casting is another aspect of Red Band Society that Nagle and her staff can be proud of. Finding a group of talented young men and women is difficult enough, but to find the right chemistry among the cast is even harder. Leo, played by a talented English-born actor named Charlie Rowe may be the leader of this "Band of Brothers," but it's Charlie's strong narrative presence that gives this show its soul. Griffin Gluck (Silicon Valley) is mostly relegated to voice-over work, yet he still manages to captivate without ever lifting a finger.
The use of fantasy elements, like the scene featuring Charlie in a kind of between-life-and-death stage was a welcomed surprise. So far, we know that drama queen Kara (Zoe Levin) and Leo have both spoken to Charlie while in a state of unconsciousness. Again, this is a series not meant to be taken entirely literately, but it features just enough realism and optimism to make this a show you do not want to miss. Calling this pilot near perfect was not a stretch, yet there are some lingering issues that may turn off some viewers.
Firstly, Dr. Jack McAndrew is just a little too Grey's Anatomy looking for his own good. Dave Annable (666 Park Avenue) is a talented individual in his own right, but it would have been nice for Nagle and company to go in a different direction than the handsome doctor that all the nurses want to be with. This is not meant to pick on Annable, it's just that the first time you see him, he looks beautifully tailored for network television; in other words, he's the expected in a show that delivers so much of the unexpected.
The other quibble some might have is with the hope and optimism that this review has been praising. Many individuals around the world will never receive the type of medical care and attention that these teenagers are blessed with. Leo basically has a master bedroom that he's converted into his own apartment. Also, the facilities of this Los Angeles-based hospital (the show was shot in Atlanta) are beyond exceptional. That's not to say that these kids have it perfect, but definitely better than most.
All in all, Red Band Society is shaping up to be the standout show this fall. The characters, setting and story take you to a place of happiness, even if the environment and terminal illnesses that encapsulate this world would suggest otherwise. There's no denying that this show is challenging to watch, but hopefully it will pay off by the end of the season - if the pilot is any indication.
What did you think of Fox's new medical drama? Was it too flowery a tale about kids in a hospital, or is this a series you could see yourself getting into? Stay tuned to see what happens next.
Red Band Society continues with 'Sole Searching' next Wednesday @9pm ET on Fox.