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The drama focuses on the daily lives of a group of teenagers living in a hospital who become unlikely friends. The depth of the unexpected friendships allows them to survive the challenges of growing up under such challenging circumstances. Octavia Spencer stars as a snarky yet caring nurse alongside “hot doc” Dave Annable.
On the surface, Red Band Society may be a challenging concept — asking viewers to watch children in comas, with cancer and anorexia, and having legs amputated. But to hear executive producer Rina Mimoun (Mistresses, Everwood, Gilmore Girls) tell it, Red Band Society is about life and not death, with stories that are both funny and earnest, along the same lines as The Fault in Our Stars.
The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Mimoun to preview Fox’s new drama and discuss the challenges associated with following sick children, incorporating adult stories, as well as to talk about the show’s long-term goals.
What are the challenges that come with joining a series after the pilot?
The pilot set up this premise but left a lot of room in terms of where to go because you know very little about all these people. You spend this first episode identifying them but we don’t go into their lives hardly at all because there are so many people to set up. What was fun about coming in later was realizing the world is our oyster. We had a love triangle — or quadrangle — in the moment at the end of the pilot that lets you know that’s coming. We have Dave Annable and Rebecca Rittenhouse (who plays Brittany), and that’s a potential love story. There’s tons of potential, which was fun to start mapping out with a really good group of writers.
How will Red Band Society be different from other hospital dramas?
There’s two ways that it’s really different from your average hospital show. The first is, you’re dealing with patients’ lives. In most of the shows, you’re following lives just of the nurses and the doctors, and the patients come in as guest cast of the week. We’re tracking the patients and how their illnesses inform their personal lives. We’re doing a somewhat traditional soap, but we’re using patients to tell the soap. We’re also branching out as the series moves forward to tell a soap on top of patients with our hospital staff and we’re adding in new people. We focus on patients but we’re also building out adult story lines, so we’re following their soaps. The other thing that keeps Red Band different from more traditional medical shows is that we’re looking to infuse it with a lot more comedy. We have this kid in a coma narrating in a very cheeky manner. We occasionally get to visit his coma world. There’s a lot of high-concept magical realism that makes this different from anything you’ve seen.
What are the misconceptions that come with setting a show about sick kids at a hospital?
It’s a hard concept to overcome. What we’re hoping people see in the pilot is that the illnesses are the backdrop of these kids’ lives. What’s amazing about the children these stories are based on is that they’re not thinking about their illnesses 24/7; they’re thinking about their life and the things the rest of us are thinking about. Their stories naturally have more stakes in the same way that the Fault in Our Stars and that love story was amped up. We infuse stakes on it but the kids having the experience are thinking about all the other things that teens in America think about: love life, parents, how they look. It’s all very accessible and universal. We’re trying to amp up the humor and keep it away from the earnest so that we earn our emotional moments at the end. But it’s fun and hopeful. It’s about life and not about death.
How do you find the balance between earnest and comedic moments?
It’s a dark humor. I always go back to the Fault in Our Stars. With the book, the one thing that struck me is the kid who’s going blind and it’s this terrible thing that’s happening to him but the whole book all he’s obsessing about is the breakup with his girlfriend. Even in the book it was the comic relief. There was something really darkly comedic about it. We’re dealing with it in that way. We don’t want to avoid it; it is in their face that they’re using their cancer to get beer. One of them is going to become emancipated over the course of these 13 episodes and the first thing he does is try to go to a strip club. They find the humor in their situation in a way that is a little bit twisted and it is a little bit dark. We’re twisted, funny and soapy but it’s important to earn the emotional moments that we get to. At the end of the pilot, when Jordi (Nolan Sotillo) is running through the hospital to a Coldplay song and it’s the last time he’s going to be on those two legs, your heart breaks for that kid but you don’t feel sad; you feel inspired and that’s what we’re going for every week. We want you to feel a roller coaster of emotions: laugh, cry and talk about it. We’re hoping this sparks a conversation.
How do you find a creative way to fold in the adult characters into the show more?
The pilot sells this show as 90 percent about the kids. But we immediately dive into who the people are who take this job on. One of things I was most interested in is trying to dig out the Nurse Jackson (Spencer’s character) of it all. To be a nurse is one thing, to work in a hospital is one thing, but to take on a job of being with terminal children, it’s such a rare and special person. I want to know what brings people to that kind of job. On top of the traditional soap and the fun and the sexy stuff, we’re going to be exploring why these doctors made these choices, why are they here and who are they as people. Our goal from the pilot is so focused on the teens, but the series is hoping to be much more 50/50, which is why we’re trying to add more adult characters.
EP Margaret Nagle drew on a lot of her experiences with her brother. How do you both balance the creative?
There are a lot of templates to work on. Margaret assembled an interesting staff. Everyone has a more crazy story then the next. When we get into the anorexia story with Emma (Ciara Bravo), Margaret made it so that there’s a writer on staff who struggled with this and was hospitalized for it as a teenager. Margaret took great pains to assemble a staff that can speak to all of these issues. Everyone watched all these documentaries and got so involved. The actors went on tours to meet children. Everyone is pulling from their own personal lives, and I bring whatever my own personal baggage is to the table as well, and we see what wins.
Griffin Gluck’s Charlie is the so-called Coma Boy narrator but there’s a spiritual element to his character. How long will he be in a coma and how does this device work?
The notion of Charlie’s role continues through at least the first seven episodes. It winds up playing a really significant role. In episode five, you find out how Charlie got into the coma and watch the entire story happen in flashback. We see his first time meeting Leo (Charlie Rowe) before he went in to his surgery when he still had both of his legs and his hair. The notion of “Charlie World” becomes a tool for Nurse Jackson in the series and it becomes a big plot point that we hinge a lot on. There’s a point in the series where there’s a question mark if Charlie will get to stay. The whole reality of Charlie World becomes a significant plot point in our show.
Will spirituality and religion play a role in the series?
I think it is a bit. What’s great about what Charlie says to Leo in episode five is that they’re both trying to figure out what is this place and Charlie says, “It’s what ever we need it to be.” It is, as the kids are there, the first time we see it in the pilot we go there to see Charlie tell Kara (Zoe Levin) something really important. We go back in the second episode for Jordi when he’s in surgery and Charlie is going to be there for Jordi because he’s scared, doesn’t know what’s happening and starts to panic. It’s a place that can be anything you need it to be in the moment that you need it to be.
Margaret said her vision for season two is for Griffin to hand off the voiceover work to someone else, which seems like an anthology format of sorts. Would the series focus on a largely new group of kids with a few returning?
That has been the question. Right now, our order is for 13 episodes. That works very well for this show. The life span of the first 13 is about three weeks, maybe even a little less. It’s not that they’ve been in the hospital for months. People don’t live in that hospital that long. In terms of a second season, what’s great is that we’re wide open. I think the cable model that’s happening in TV now gives you a lot of freedom. Anthology series are doing very well. People like Octavia, Dave, Rebecca and Wilson Cruz are there forever; they work at that hospital. But there is always a chance that patient stories can change. With shows like this, you grow so attached to the kids and those stories and our goal would be to keep that intact. Someone on the writing staff lived in a children’s hospital for a certain amount of time and said after she got out, she went back and worked with kids there. With this show, there are lots of ways to keep it going.
Is Red Band 13 total episodes — no back-nine order — for season one?
There is a possibility for a pickup but my understanding is if we didn’t get a back order, that certainly doesn’t mean we won’t get a second season. I do think there’s something about this show that if you stretch it out too long, you stretch the believability. This show works really well in smaller doses. We can tell it year after year and infuse it with new life and new people and change up the situation as much as we want, but I think it does work nicely in the cable mode.
Nagle said at TCA that Red Band wouldn’t be a show with a body count. Is that something that still holds true?
To say we’d never see someone die is unlikely. That’s part of the show and part of life. We are primed for that. There’s a chance we will lose someone in this first season. But we don’t know who. I would agree with her that I think the way a lot of soaps these days have gotten ramped up with who’s dying this week, who’s dying next week and that sort of thing — but we’re definitely not doing that. We’re not looking to ramp up the melodrama in that way.
Medical dramas are making a comeback this development season. What do you think is behind the renewed push?
I’ve tried to develop a medical show almost every year because there is an engine there that works. A lot of TV in the past few years has become so high-concept and they all feel like feature films. It is hard to keep those story engines going as people are discovering as shows keep going down in first seasons. Medical shows, there’s always high stakes right at your fingertips. There are a million people there and a million ways to tell the story. If you do it right, it doesn’t have to be a place you don’t want to go. I love Grey’s Anatomy and ER. All of those shows are my favorite dramas going, I’d be excited to think that more are coming.
Wrapping up, what’s the status of Mistresses?
I keep waiting to hear. I have my fingers crossed. I love those ladies and I want to know what happens to Josh and Harry, personally. It is my personal goal to get one of my Mistresses onto Red Band Society, so if you see that you’ll know it’s my doing.
Red Band Society airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on Fox.
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