Tissue Alert

‘Red Band Society’ Is Really Freaking Sad (And May Be TV’s Best New Drama)

There’s something refreshing about how unabashed Fox’s new drama—about dying children, natch—is about tugging at your heartstrings. The result is an imperfectly great new series.

09.17.14 9:45 AM ET

We’re a society that relishes gratuitous violence, gratuitous sex, gratuitous cruelty, gratuitous language, and gratuitous darkness on our TV shows. We embrace it. We encourage it. We call it edgy and realistic and refreshing. But God forbid a TV series premieres pushing out gratuitous emotion and gratuitous feeling.

No. That’s where we draw the line.

It’s safe to say that Red Band Society, a new Fox drama that is quite literally about dying children, will have its fair share of critics who will say that it is schmaltzy, or maudlin, or emotionally manipulative.

Though it’s certainly not how the series gets its name (that is revealed in a particularly heart-tugging scene near the end of Wednesday’s first episode), it’s almost fitting, for that reason, that the show has “Red Band” in its title, evoking the term used for movie trailers or promotional materials that are too illicit for family-friendly viewing. It increasingly seems “family friendly” is replacing illicit content as the kind of fare mainstream viewers can’t stomach.

Perhaps, scarred by too many emotionally rich series that were either underrated or underwatched in recent years, we’re bracing against a backlash that might not actually happen with Red Band Society. That would be a wonderful thing, because Red Band Society is a wonderful little show. We say “little” not because it appears shoddily filmed or small in scale, but because there’s something understatedly grand about the fact that the series trades in emotion as special effects in much the same ways that other series trade in CGI, gore, explosives, and sex.

The series begins with a voiceover from a 9-year-old boy named Charlie (Griffin Gluck), basically a more precocious Meredith Grey. “I’m in a coma,” he says. “Yeah, this is me talking to you from a coma. Deal with it.”

Whether or not you can, in fact, deal with this is a good barometer for whether or not you will be able to deal with the rest of this series, which is just as matter of fact about its intentions: to overload you with cuteness and sadness, so as to turn your viewing experience into an aria of alternating awws and wahhs.

The marquee star of Red Band Society, as you know if you’ve seen the ads, is Octavia Spencer, the Oscar-winning actress from The Help. Spencer’s special talent is bringing gravitas to the most broadly written (typically no-nonsense, all-sass) supporting roles, and it’s quite frustrating—and also surprising—that her role in Red Band Society is more supporting than one might think an Oscar-winning actress would make the transition to TV for. This is a truly an ensemble drama, equally about all of the children’s ward’s patients and doctors and nurses, and Spencer’s role is the same size as the rest.

It’s also a little surprising and frustrating that this is the kind of role that Spencer could play in her sleep. Her Nurse Jackson yells at anyone who gets in her way, is so straight-talking that her Starbucks barista writes “Scary Bitch” on her coffee cup, and refuses to hold the elevator for someone who is running late, because it doesn’t mean that she should be, too. But, naturally, warmth radiates from her eyes like the warmest of warm hugs, particularly when it becomes clear how much she really, truly cares for the kids in her ward.

Is it a little unbelievable that Spencer, once again, is playing the strong-willed lady with the heart of gold? Sure. But it’s also kind of refreshing, considering the recent TV trend that insists that the gold in protagonists’ hearts be hopelessly rusted, for if they were to shine too much they might suddenly become uninteresting. Spencer’s Nurse Jackson—not to mention the sprawling cast of misfit sick kids—certainly refutes that latter notion.

Attempts at reducing Red Band Society to a simple branding or logline have typically called it Fault in Our Stars meets Glee. That’s a fair enough assessment of the series, though it admittedly alienates pretty much every single person in the universe, as the populations of people who recoil at the mention of either of those pop-culture phenomena in theory becomes insurmountable when they’re combined. But, of course, there’s a lot of heart and a lot of adventurous storytelling that shouldn’t be disconnected from Fault or Glee, and those are things that Red Band Society also has in spades.

On the Fault side, there’s the unabashed and blatant telegraphing that this show will make you cry. It’s emotionally pornographic in that way, to the extent that the arrival of its version of the money shot—the scene that’s going to just open up the tear-duct faucet—is as expected, obvious, and, yes, as much of a release as it is in those more X-rated arenas. There’s an orphan with cancer who must beg a doctor to treat him, for the love of every heartstring that could ever be tugged, pulled, or wrenched.

Much of the premiere episode is spent with the ward’s patients trying to organize a blowout, contraband party for this orphan teen, named Jordi (Nolan Sotillo), on his last night before having major surgery, so that he could live what might be his last few hours to his fullest. Jordi is going to have his leg amputated as part of a possibly life-saving, aggressive cancer treatment, and right before he is rolled into the operation room he insists on jogging through the hospital’s halls once last time, dancing with a girl for one last time, and seeing all of his new friends for one last time.

This show is freaking sad.

There are very Fault-in-Our-Stars-like lines like, “Everyone thinks that when you go to the hospital, life stops. But it’s the opposite. Life starts.” And, “It’s weird how people get hung up on stuff that doesn’t really matter, until something that matters really happens.”

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You might find these cloying. But presented on face value in a TV show that is not pretending to be anything other than emotional catharsis for anyone who has ever been sick, loved someone who’s sick, or loved someone, in general, these lines go down like they’re spoonfuls of sugar-sprinkled medicine. And you’re going to wish you could give that medicine to these kids and SAVE THEM ALL.

The Glee parallels are pretty easy to spot, too. Early on, Charlie narrates about how when teenagers are patients in a hospital for extended periods of time, the jocks, the nerds, the goths, the cool kids, the artsy ones—they’re all forced to rally around each other and be friends. “The walls just kind of fall down,” he says.

So there’s the kind of perfect Everyman teen guy, Leo (Charlie Rowe), who is cool enough to smoke pot and steal beer and also could possibly be the most empathetic, nicest pot-smoking and beer-stealing teen any hospital has ever seen. In other words, he’s to Red Band Society what Finn Hudson was to Glee.

Leo’s best friend is Dash (X Factor alum Astro), a wise-cracking graffiti artist who flirts with all the nurses. There’s the artsy, all-black-wearing Emma (Ciara Bravo), who gets to hang with the cool kids because, in the hospital (as in the choir room), everyone is equal. Kara (Zoe Levin) is the bitchy cheerleader who doesn’t even realize she has a heart until she learns that she needs hers transplanted. The “unlikely friends” theme is driven home pretty aggressively. But that doesn’t mean that you’re not gleefully along for the ride.

Red Band Society is by no means the perfect network drama. (That would be The Good Wife, for those who are keeping count.) But there is something admirable about what it is doing, and about the fact that it has no qualms about it. We’re so used to hospital shows that entertain through the high stakes of bloody life-and-death procedures, with the emotions coming as natural byproducts of such things. Red Band Society is content to just manufacture those emotions from the start. And that’s OK.

And just like those series that are gratuitous for various reasons—excessive violence, nudity, foul language, or what have you—the viewing experience for Red Band Society carries with the same tinge of self-conscious shame. That is, unless you don’t mind letting everyone see you cry. Because you will cry. Oh, you will cry.