If you’re looking for a show in which a magical coma kid tells you to “Deal with it,” have I got a pilot for you. That would be “Red Band Society,” which premieres tonight on Fox. Before critics got a hold of it, “Red Band,” which was created by Margaret Nagle, was lumped in with a rash of new shows with African-American actresses in prominent roles: “Extant,” “Empire,” “State of Affairs” and “How to Get Away With Murder” among them. But Octavia Spencer, whose children’s hospital nurse is introduced carrying a Starbucks cup with “Scary Bitch” scrawled in place of her name, plays a role in the pilot that’s disappointing but in substance and scope. Based on the first episode, which is (still!) all we have to go on, it seems as if her primary function is to facilitate the emotional growth of the almost entirely white juvenile patients in her care. Progress!
Critics are split on “Red Band,” less along lines of whether or not the pilot works than their understanding (or acceptance) of what it’s trying to do. There’s clearly no room for a realistic appraisal of the U.S. healthcare system on a show where patients who aren’t in the midst of a medical crisis are checked into solo hospital rooms the size of a mini-mart for an indefinite stay; if it were shot from the doctors’ perspective, the show could afford to rotate kids in and out at a more realistic pace, but there’s every sign that this particular group of patients — from a petulant cheerleader with an enlarged heart to a soccer player who loses his leg to osteosarcoma to, yes, a 12-year-old boy in a coma who nonetheless narrates the entire episode — are here to stay. Even more than “The Fault in Our Stars,” whose advance screenings were preceded by an extended “Red Band” trailer, the reference point of choice seems to be “Glee” another show whose gratingly arch tone occasionally gave way to moments of emotional truth. Whether or not you’re willing to dig for them… that’s your call.
“Red Band Society” airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on Fox.
James Poniewozik, Time
The pilot of “Red Band” (like “Glee’s”) has a ton of voice, but its tone wobbles wildly as it overcorrects away from sentimentality and then straight into it. One moment it’s all parties, fart jokes and gallows humor, the next Leo is dispensing inspirational quotes like a piñata: “Luck isn’t getting what you want. It’s surviving what you don’t want,” and “Your body isn’t you. Your soul is you, and they can never cut into your soul.”
Alan Sepinwall, HitFix
You can heighten everything else to try to equal the feeling of tragedy and wasted potential, or you can underplay everything to keep the story from drowning in sadness.”Red Band Society,” adapted by Margaret Nagle from the Spanish-language series “Polseres Vermelles,” tries both approaches at once, with mixed but mostly promising results. If it can pull back on some of its excesses — if it can be the good version of “Glee,” rather than the bad version, in a hospital — it could really be something.
Emily Nussbaum, New Yorker
The show mines a primal adolescent fantasy: that sickness might be a form of glamour, making a person special and deeper than other humans. Whether you find this conceit offensive or escapist will depend on your mood. For me, the crassness outweighed any charm.
Brian Lowry, Variety
Even with a premise that appears designed to anticipate network notes urging producers to raise the emotional stakes, the premiere feels less inspired than cynical — a project where the motivation seems not so much inspired by creativity as by demographics, and the potential to reel in a younger audience.
Linda Holmes, NPR
Adolescence, done right and with resonance, is very often about kids learning to relate to each other by being compassionate about other people’s battles, and it’s not necessarily fatal that this particular show makes those battles so literal; makes the relevant maladies text instead of subtext. We all deserve our goopy montages that succeed both because of and despite Coldplay, our caring adults who seem to understand, our reluctant friendships and shy romances.
Amber Dowling, IGN
With films like “The Fault in Our Stars” capturing massive audiences, “Red Band Society” seems poised to capture a portion of those viewers. But unlike that film (and book) the plot in this series is all over the place, rife with emotional highs and lows that have us wondering if we should be rooting for these characters or feeling uncomfortable at some of the morally questionable things they do to try and manipulate people at various points.
Hank Steuver, Washington Post
It’s hard to imagine something more tone deaf to the realities of sickness and suffering, but here, in the wake of “The Fault in Our Stars” and other doses of teen weepies, “Red Band Society” thrives on the same ballad-drenched idea that 500 mg of platitude and hollow uplift cures all.
Matthew Gilbert, Boston Globe
I’m not going to hold the illness theme against the show, though I will defect if the sentimentality becomes overplayed and cloying. The idea of anyone, kids or adults, putting on a brave front in the face of suffering can be very powerful, but not if we get our faces rubbed in it.
Willa Paskin, Slate
It’s hard to watch a 14-year-old joyfully run through a hospital, using his two legs for what he and we know will be the very last time, and not feel something. But this kind of easy sympathizing is the emotional equivalent of the doctor banging your knee with a rubber hammer: It’s a reflex, and it co-exists with the show’s disingenuous and near-total glamorizing of being extraordinarily ill.
Sonia Saraiya, A.V. Club
There are two “Red Band Society”s. There’s the one that would get into the real drama of the American healthcare system—that would use the basic indignities of dying slowly as fodder for stories about these teenagers trying to have some kind of normal life. And there’s one that would be a children’s show in a special kind of school, some peppier version of “Never Let Me Go” in which all the kids lived and took classes and were slightly sick together. The first is depressing, to be sure. But the second makes being ill look fun and interesting, and that’s terrifying.