'Red Band Society': TV Review

A bunch of hospitalized kids' stories are narrated by a comatose boy — whose ability to see them when they're not in his room is one of many other hokey problems in this manipulative freshman drama. 

Instead of making something honest, Fox goes for schmaltz and lame voiceovers in a failed attempt to find a heart

The manipulative vein in Fox's new drama Red Band Society runs very deep indeed. But my hope for the "young adult" audience it's so obviously aimed at is that — contrary to the beliefs of those who created this show — they possess the ability to recognize mawkish manipulation when they're being drowned in it.

Yes, a certain lack of discernment can sometimes coexist with immaturity, but you're not a very savvy teenager if you can't feel Red Band Society pulling — no, yanking — your heartstrings to the point of annoyance.

Red Band Society, an American version of a Catalan series adapted by Margaret Nagle, takes life in a children's hospital to a new and unhealthy level of schmaltz. It's an absolutely unbelievable fantasy of health care in America for starters and a cynical attempt to mesh The Breakfast Club and like-minded stories with the unique type of camaraderie that arises among sufferers of serious illnesses. It's an attempt at taking a YA book and stripping out the dystopian fantasy of being able to survive anything together and gluing it with sap to a teen soap.

That, people, is manipulation at its cynical worst. And if you're thinking, "Wow, the only thing that could make this soul-suckingly vile attempt to wring emotions from impressionable demo-friendly young people worse would be the presence of Coldplay," well, guess what?

Set in a fictitious Los Angeles children's hospital called Ocean Park, where parents are rarely seen and nobody is worried at all about how quickly the expenses are piling up, Red Band Society centers on 12-year-old Charlie (Griffin Gluck), whose coma doesn't stand in the way of his narration duties ("This is me talking to you from a coma — deal with it," he says); 16-year-old Leo (Charlie Rowe), who has cancer and has already lost part of his leg; new arrival Jordi (Nolan Sotillo), a 16-year-old who suffers from the same cancer as Leo and is also about to lose his leg; 16-year-old Dash (Astro), who has cystic fibrosis; 15-year-old Emma (Ciara Bravo) who has an eating disorder; newcomer Kara (Zoe Levin), an over-the-top mean cheerleader who needs a new heart (get it?!); Nurse Jackson (Octavia Spencer), the "mean bitch" nurse (they even put that on her coffee cup when she orders) with a heart of gold; plus super-handsome Dr. Jack McAndrew (Dave Annable), who is the country's top pediatric surgeon because of course he is; and Griffin Dunne as a really rich ex-hippie who also gets to live at the hospital because he's going to leave all of his money to it, even though he's a pot-smoking hypochondriac who has nothing wrong with him (and has a stellar collection of midcentury modern furniture he's allowed to live with at the hospital).

Are you still with me? I said, are you still with me?

Well, it gets better. But before we go there, can we just flash back for a second to the fact that Red Band Society purports to be a show that in some way supports sick and dying children but in fact has reduced all of their trauma, heartache and fears into a sloppy, sentimental bit of emotional puppetry? Yeah, because that's the part that should piss you off — that a good show could have been made here. Also, that Octavia Spencer's valiant efforts are wasted here.

But let's leave that soapbox rant aside to wonder aloud how a girl with an eating disorder can just live in a hospital among kids who have cancer? (She's been there a long time, people!) Or why the kid with cystic fibrosis acts like he could run a marathon and score pot for the party they're going to throw for the kid who is about to lose his leg? Or why the heartless cheerleader who needs a heart's parents go to the hospital to get the news of her prognosis a mere 14 feet from their daughter but aren't shown interacting with her at all?

Ah, but I digress, wandering away from one of the main irritations of Red Band Society: "Coma Boy," as he's called. He's your voiceover narration but goes way beyond that. He's not just in a coma — he can hear other patients and comment on their words. When the cheerleader, who is his new roommate, complains that he farts — I only wish I was making that up — he decides to fart louder and longer to annoy her, as one does in a coma.

Worse, Coma Boy actually narrates and comments on scenes that he can't actually see. It's the worst kind of lazy writing. But like a terrible diagnosis, it gets more horrifying. He can actually talk to the other patients when they black out or are sedated.

Because coma patients, as everyone knows, are telepathic. But only Red Band Society is tele-pathetic.

And that's the real tragedy here. A moving, emotional and even competent show could have been made about sick or dying young people. But instead, Red Band Society wants to take your emotions and manipulate them — and then, only then, will it predictably and with malice drop the Coldplay anvil on you.

Shame on you, Red Band Society.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com
Twitter: @BastardMachine