First Watch: Red Band Society: “Pilot” (Season 1, Episode 1)

Hospital Dramas are a constant in network television. From M*A*S*H to E.R. to Grey’s Anatomy, medical staff have been providing us with our weekly doses of suspense and drama. Doctors are the idea characters for a prime time show—intelligent, sexy, relatively wealthy, and they lead dramatic lives. With House we even saw the procedural angle of the medical show. We’ve looked at every angle except one: the patients living in the hospital. Red Band Society saw this and filled a gap.

In what I can only describe as Degrassi meets Scrubs, Red Band Society focuses on the long-term patients who reside at the hospital. None of these patients are especially likable from the get-go. In fact, it would appear the writers went out of their way to make them hostile. There are a ton of characters, too. Some are residents (the living there kind), some are residents (the doctoring kind), and some are nurses.

Three of these characters seem important and interesting: Leo, the cancer-ridden teen, Jordi, the newly cancer-ridden teen, and Charlie, our narrator and coma patient. Oh yeah, our narrator has been in a coma for quite a while.

Most of the is episode is interpersonal drama with other characters that seem less important, so let’s go over what I deem to be important. How did I decide this? The two female “leads” seem to be there exclusively to fight over which guy they want—not important. The nurse is busy being a cliché—not important. Jordi wants guidance on how to physically and emotionally survive an amputation from Leo—yeah, that sounds important.

Leo spends the first few scenes in a wheelchair, but he has cancer, so the audience never questions it. Jordi admits himself to the hospital with a bad case of leg cancer. The only way to stop leg cancer from spreading is an amputation. This is when Leo reveals his own missing limb to Jordi, and that brings us to a moment of bonding. Actually, it takes us to a whole episode of bonding, which is bound to lead to a whole series of bonding.

While that might be the most pertinent story, it’s not the only one. Our narrator, Charlie, communicates to us from an “in-between”; a place between life and death. He breaks the fourth wall—addresses the audience directly—but he has intimate knowledge of every other character in the show. He is our tour guide. Beyond that, though, Charlie has aspirations of his own: getting someone to help him wake up. How can he do this, though? Apparently when people are under anesthesia, or briefly dead, they spend a bit of time “in-between.” This is not a new, original idea, but I don’t look to Fox for originality.

So what does the “In-Between” look like? Like the hospital, but empty. That might have been anticlimactic. One of the girls, a cheerleader with an enlarged heart, passes out. Charlie instructs her to get pizza for him because the smell of pizza could wake him up. Something about the shared hallucination makes me wish this series would share an ending with Lost.

I can’t call Red Band Society a terrible show. It’s not. But, I was bored. Alright, that might be confusing. Let’s try this again.

I respect Fox for showing us a whole new side of a medical drama, providing patients with depth and real life complications. They provide their usual polished grit to the show—House‘s playful pill addiction, The Following‘s softened view of cults, and now Red Band Society‘s humanization of terminally-ill patients and amputees. Yes, the subject matter for each of those shows is dark, but Fox manages to bring it to us in a digestible, sugar-coated manner. Perhaps that’s why I’m bored. AMC would not have pulled punches on the harsh realities of losing a leg. HBO would not have peppered their dialog with hip buzzwords like “Cray Cray” or “Selfie”. Even FX wouldn’t have quoted Henry V out of context because it sounded cool. Alright, FX would have done that, but they would have provided the least bit of camouflage and pretense. The show is cute, but I fear any substance it has will be lost amongst the obvious grabs for ratings and demographics.

Maybe I’m cynical. Maybe I don’t believe the Big 4 can deliver quality TV, when networks like AMC can bring us Breaking Bad. That might be on me. Now that I’ve had pure cinema piped through the airwaves to my home, I want more of that. I don’t want anything watered down or sanitized for me. I don’t want censors getting in the way of art. I don’t want my grit to be polished.

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