PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.


'Red Band Society': Life is Full of Black Holes, Honey

It's hard to overstate the overstatement in Red Band Society.

Red Band Society

Airtime: Wednesdays, 9pm ET
Cast: Octavia Spencer, Dave Annable, Astro, Ciara Bravo
Subtitle: Series Premiere
Network: Fox
Creator: Margaret Nagle
Air date: 2014-09-17

"Here's the thing about a hospital. Everyone has somewhere to go and something to do and you better not get in their way." Just as young Charlie (Griffin Gluck) makes his observation, Red Band Society offers illustration, sort of.

Nurse Jackson (Octavia Spencer), known to her barista as "Scary Bitch" -- a point underlined by an awkward close-up on her coffee container -- is nearly hit by a car in the hospital parking lot. The frame freezes as her name is superimposed: she turns to the driver (and so, the camera), makes a scary bitch face, and educates that unseen driver on pedestrians' right of way.

It's hard to overstate the overstatement in Red Band Society. While you want to love the mere existence of Octavia Spencer on TV every week, the show works awfully hard to make this hard. Cast as the wise, wonderful nurse on the pediatrics ward, she provides a mobile link among the assorted children, including Charlie.

These kids are each identified by a particular familial or economic background, and a malady. Charlie's shorthand is the most sensational. Also known as Coma Boy, he is, yes, in a coma, and so, apparently, has the capacity to know what everyone on the floor (or in the parking lot) is doing at all times.

The coma allows each observer to imagine what's happened and what might happen. It also allows him -- by some magical screenwriter's tick -- to narrate, comment, and instruct. "The thing about a coma is, you can hear everything, you just can't respond," he offers, "Do you know how hard it is to make friends in a coma?" You might imagine.

This Coma Boy device is peculiar: it's one version of creepy for Glenn Close to narrate from her coma, indicting Jeremy Irons for killing her in Reversal of Fortune ("This is my body!" she opens the film). But it's another sort of creepy for a little boy to conjure cutesy observations about "life in a hospital".

Part of this life entails observing the obvious (Dash [Astro], the one black boy, likes to smoke weed with the boy who lost his leg to cancer, Leo [Charlie Rowe]) or the girl with the eating disorder (Emma [Ciara Bravo]) is a perfectionist with distant parents. And the other part has him leaving out useful information so that you might be surprised to learn something about him along with another character, say, his new roommate, Kara (Zoe Levin), a mean girl cheerleader who arrives at the hospital with an enlarged heart, thus providing for all manner of Obvious Irony.

Such symbolism can be frustrating. Kara and the other assorted kids are like miniature types, the sort of crew that assembles around a star-like adult or designated authority in order to embody the diversity quotient for a given show. Kids with cancer and eating disorders, or kids in comas aren't precisely the same sort of diversity as those minions in legal (Shark, Scandal) or doctor shows House) or high school shows (Glee), but they serve the same sort of function, which is to say, they're shortcuts to assorted storylines, whether individual or ensemble.

Red Band Society does, of course, carve out some thematic territory for itself, as the kids are supposedly at risk of dying each week. That, and they answer to Octavia Spencer, who is formidable and compelling no matter her weak narrative situation (see: The Help). Here, though, she's got hurdles that look to be repeated rather than resolved or complicated, from the moral lessons Jackson must dole out to the scary bitch business, and also including her endless patience with the secondary players, otherwise known as adults (incompetent or absent parents, busy doctors, a staff that as of the first episode, remains unspecific).

Nurse Jackson's blackness serves as a sign too, not exactly like the coma, but still, pervasive. She's able to see what others cannot (she knows about diagnoses before doctors, for instance, she sees bad parenting, she knows when to be snappy with the mean girl and when to be supportive of the sad girl). You want her to save all these kids. But you don't want her to have to be the character she's set up to be.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.


Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.


Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".


John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.


The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.


Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.


In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.


Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.


Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.


'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.


Jazz Composer Maria Schneider Takes on the "Data Lords" in Song

Grammy-winning jazz composer Maria Schneider released Data Lords partly as a reaction to her outrage that streaming music services are harvesting the data of listeners even as they pay musicians so little that creativity is at risk. She speaks with us about the project.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 100-81

PopMatters' best albums of the 2000s begin with a series of records that span epic metal, ornate indie folk, and a terrifying work of electronic music.


The Power of Restraint in Sophie Yanow, Paco Roca, and Elisa Macellari's New Graphic Novels

The magical quality that makes or breaks a graphic novel lies somewhere in that liminal space in which art and literature intersect.


'People of the City' Is an Unrelenting Critique of Colonial Ideology and Praxis

Cyprian Ekwensi's People of the City is a vivid tale of class struggle and identity reclamation in the shadows of colonialism's reign.


1979's 'This Heat' Remains a Lodestone for Avant-Rock Adventure

On their self-titled debut, available for the first time on digital formats, This Heat delivered an all-time classic stitched together from several years of experiments.


'The Edge of Democracy' and Parallels of Political Crises

Academy Award-nominated documentary The Edge of Democracy, now streaming on Netflix, lays bare the political parallels of the rise of Bolsonaro's Brazil with Trump's America.


The Pogues' 'The BBC Sessions 1984-1986' Honors Working-Class Heroes

The Pogues' BBC Sessions 1984-1986 is a welcome chapter in the musical story of these working-class heroes, who reminded listeners of the beauty and dignity of the strong, sooty backs upon which our industrialized world was built.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.