'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.


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