A group of teens channels The Breakfast Club in a children's hospital.

By Madina Papadopoulos
September 18, 2014 at 02:00 AM EDT
Alex Martinez/FOX
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After this summer’s onslaught of below average films and predictions of a halfway decent fall TV line-up, Red Band Society gives a glimmer of hope to hungry viewers. Mixing old tropes of teen dramedy with an original, poignant setting, Red Band Society is at one moment a heartbreaker, and at the next, a laugh factory. Yes, you could criticize the show for having cliché high school characters (mean cheerleader, profound child, teen charmer, nerdy girl, emo dude, etc.), our society obviously finds something fascinating about that period in human growth. This show gives the audience what they want to see, but at the same time shows audiences a reality that is often too hard to watch: children in hospitals.

The pilot opens with cinematic style by introducing each character with a distinct action, then freeze-framing with their name. The voice-over is done by Charlie (Griffin Gluck), a young boy in a coma. Charlie was with his father when he was in the accident that caused his coma, and for that reason, his father isn’t allowed to see him. Though Charlie can’t move or talk, he hears, smells, and observes those on his unit. In his narration, he begins with Kara (Zoe Levin), a typical snobby, mean-girl cheerleader. During cheer practice she mistreats everyone, particularly her underling. She then proceeds to pass out, upon which her teammates rush to their cellphones—to snap pics, not to call 911. The only one who cares is her minion, who calls for an ambulance, then happily gives her mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

Kara is brought to the hospital, where she rooms with the voice of the show, Charlie. He notes that the hospital is more like a boarding school, and Kara immediately implements her queen-bee ways: being condescending to the nurses as if they are the help and mocking all the other sick patients.

Charlie goes on to introduce the other personalities: There’s Dash (Astro), a suave, hip boy with lung disease. Emma (Ciara Bravo), an anorexic, dark-humored fashionable, smart girl. And Leo (Charlie Rowe), an introspective, somewhat emo-ish kid with cancer who lost his leg and is in a wheelchair. He wears his many red bands from all his surgeries, as if he were collecting wristbands from rave parties.

There are a few teenagers on the unit, and they go to school together in a scene reminiscent of 10 Things I Hate About You. That movie was based off Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, and while this isn’t based off any specific Shakespeare play, they overtly reference Shakespeare by studying him in class and discussing character motivation. Turns out Leo and Emma had a sort of love affair when they first met, but Leo was too afraid of not living to continue their relationship.

NEXT: Meet Jordi, the new kid

As in any good teen show, there is a new kid on the scene, Jordi (Nolan Sotillo). He’s a teenager with a somewhat mysterious past (he was living in Mexico, where he was diagnosed with cancer; his mother is dead and his father is out of the picture). He knows he has to have his leg amputated and finagles his way to get into this hospital and get the famous Doctor McAndrew (Brothers & Sisters‘ Dave Annable) to be his surgeon. Jordi has the same disease as Leo, and like Leo, he’ll have to lose his right leg. For a while, Leo has had his own room. But Doctor McAndrew thinks that Leo and Jordi would be a good fit for each other.

As for the adults on the unit, there is Nurse Jackson, who is a self-titled “scary bitch.” She dishes out tough love like Mary Poppins spoons out sugar and is expertly played by Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer. Dr. McAndrew, a young doctor, lives for his patients and is for sure soon to have some title like, “Doctor McSteamy.” Brittany (Rebecca Rittenhouse), an innocent, naïve nurse, who gets pushed around by Nurse Jackson. And Ruben. Ruben (Griffin Dunne) is one part of the story that felt a little too gratuitous.

Ruben is a hypochondriac with no physical ailments who pays to live like Hugh Heffner in a five-star, penthouse-like apartment of the hospital. If all the comparisons in that last sentence were a little lecherous, it’s because Ruben seems a tad creepy. Ruben is allowed to stay in the hospital because he is a millionaire, and he will leave all his millions to the hospital upon his death. Yet Ruben displays no signs of being a hypochondriac. Rather, he seems like a super chilled out, Bono look-alike who is somehow living the dream of luxury… in a hospital.

Although the teens are sick, they’re still teens, and their illness only heightens their thirst for life and curiosity for adult things. Sneaky Dash tricks cute Nurse Brittany into giving him a sponge bath, then after some flirtation, tells her: “I’m afraid that I might die… a virgin.” Leo checks out Kara (still in a short cheerleading uniform) and tries to impress her by telling her he’s going to throw a party. Jordi meets Emma—and has an instant connection. He enjoys her dark humor, which fuels Leo’s jealousy, yet at the same time, his fear of his feelings. The three guys set off to make this illegal rooftop party happen, but their attempt to buy alcohol fails.

While Kara is the it-girl in high school, she’s having a hard time winning bossy points with anyone at Ocean Park Hospital. But that doesn’t stop her from being a mean girl. She smokes in the room—once into Charlie’s face—when no one is looking. Since she uses her emergency button like a Downton Abbey character uses the bell to summon the handmaidens, the nurses stop coming as fast. Charlie gets his own vengeance on Kara, because even though he can’t talk, he can fart. Oh boy, can he fart. And she hates it. She’s also incredibly mean to a guitarist who volunteers to play music for the kids in the hospital. He mainly plays for Charlie, and Kara is smart enough to wonder if there is more to his story.

NEXT: About those red bands…

When Kara’s minion brings her flowers, Kara cruelly confronts her about being in love with her. Surprisingly, her classmate rebuts, telling Kara that no one likes her, and walks out. Upset, Kara passes out, and enters a limbo world between life and death. There she meets Charlie. He asks Kara to order him pizza, hoping that the smell will wake him up. He also makes her promise to give his dad a message, “Tell my dad that it wasn’t his fault.” Kara wakes up from her nightmare, only to learn she has a serious heart condition and will need a transplant. The guitar volunteer is back to play for Charlie, and she figures out he is actually Charlie’s father. (How weird is it to see an American Pie actor playing a dad?) He begs her not to tell anyone, saying that he is not allowed to see his own son. Showing some compassion, she agrees, and shares with him that she saw Charlie when she was unconscious, and that she has a message for him—but she won’t divulge that until he buys her some beer. He agrees, making Kara the cool girl of the kingdom once again.

As a sign of peace, Kara brings the beers to the rooftop party. Leo rips off his red bands and dedicates each one to his pack of friends. Then he quotes Henry V (seems he has been paying attention in class), and gives Shakespeare’s famous “band of brothers” speech. After the party, Leo goes down and sees Charlie. He says when he was under anesthesia, Charlie told him, “Luck isn’t getting what you want, it’s surviving what you don’t want.” He places one of his red bands on his wrist. The next morning, Kara keeps her second promise to buy Charlie pizza. She gets over a dozen boxes, and waves them over his face, bluntly saying, “Wake up, already.”

Through the tears and the laughter, there are moments during the show that seem unrealistic. Ruben has already been discussed. But Jordi finagling his way without insurance or tests and getting an instant surgery is also quite a stretch from what most Americans experience when they go to the hospital. Although the logistics of the hospital are at times unrealistic, the feeling rings true. That’s most likely because much of it is based on real experiences.

The show is based on Polseres vermelles (2011), a Catalan television show created by writer/director/industrial engineer Albert Espinosa. Espinosa was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 14, and spent the next 10 years of his life in and out of hospitals battling it. Due to his illness, he lost a leg and a lung. Margaret Nagle, whose credits include Warms Springs and Boardwalk Empire, pens the American adaptation. Fun fact: she played science teacher Ms. Chavatal in one of the ultimate teen shows: My-So-Called-Life. When Nagle was young, her older brother was in a coma, and she visited him there often. His name: Charlie.

A group of teenagers band together in a pediatric ward—the result is full of humor and heart.
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