In what's becoming a more and more frequent marketing strategy, Fox has posted the pilot episode of Red Band Society online and also on sites like Hulu. I think this leads to an interesting question about the future distribution method of TV and whether or not we're seeing the last days of cable dominance. As more and more people are going the route of Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, and other online services in lieu of having an actual cable subscription, the TV landscape could be changing forever. But that's a topic for a different day; for right now I want to focus on just how enjoyable I found the first episode of this new series to be.
Red Band Society is the story of a hospital and the long term residence of its pediatric ward. In the first episode we're introduced (rather quickly I might add) to the principal players. The primary staff will be comprised of Octavia Spencer's Nurse Jackson and the very very handsome Dr. Jack McAndrew played by Dave Annable. The residents on the ward include the established patients: Leo, Dash, Emma and Charlie (played by Charlie Rowe, Astro, Clara Bravo, and Griffin Gluck respectively), who have all been on the ward for some time by the start of the episode. The new comers are Kara and Jordi played Zoe Levin and Nolan Sotillo. There isn't much in the way of a story for the first episode. It mostly serves as a way to introduce the characters and establish the setting. The characters are painted with broad strokes and their backstory is filled it through exposition. Leo is the ring leader who's worried about his cancer diagnosis and tries not to form lasting bonds with people in order to not have to say goodbye. Emma has an eating disorder and used to date Leo, now they spend most of their time sniping at each other in an effort to justify some quippy dialogue. And Kara and Jordi find themselves in the hospital as of this episode. He's recently found out he's got cancer and wheedles his way into the good graces of Dr. McAndrew in order to guilt the man into performing his surgery, and Kara discovers she has an enlarged heart after she collapses in Cheer leading practice. It goes without saying that Kara's a total bitch, as Cheerleaders tend to be on TV, but somewhere underneath her brash exterior is a softer side which is hinted at and will no doubt be explored as she progresses through her illness and gets to know the other characters.
I recognize that none of that sounds wonderfully exciting or unique, and in a lot of ways it isn't. The pilot isn't spectacular, in my opinion. It suffers from the horrible exposition you tend to expect from a pilot episode, but it's worse here since it's all delivered in voice over narration from Charlie, who happens to be in a coma. The characters don't really feel like real people yet. They mostly exist to either deliver overly emotional platitudes, and to fill prescribed roles. The pilot also suffers from an odd lack of Octavia Spencer. Since the promos all suggested she'd be a major part of the series, it's an interesting choice to not fill in any of her back story just yet.
But what makes this first episode so promising are the little things. First there's the refreshingly diverse cast with black and Latino characters and female characters that I'm sure will prove to be more than just love interests. There are also queer storylines and characters that are established (or at least hinted at) in this first hour. And as cliche as it is, I really like the story of the heartless bitch girl who discovers that her problem is that her hearts actually too large. The show is also playing with what it means to be in a coma as Charlie narrates and has meetings with other characters when they're unconscious. The show has a fun sense of humor with a lot of Spencer's moments serving to bring the funny, and nice moment in a convenience store when the underage boys try to buy booze for their party. And I don't think there's any doubt that the show will bring the pathos in the weeks to come as its entire premise seems created to make you cry when the time is right. And I think the show has a great grasp of its setting. The comparison Charlie makes to life in a hospital being a lot like life at a boarding school is an interesting one and I'm curious to see the multiple ways in which that might play out.
There's still a lot of uncertainty with the show, and it has its bumps it will need to iron out to be fully believable. I'd love to see the voice over either fully eliminated or at least paired down to the basics. Charlie delivering exposition in this fashion doesn't have to be horrible, but so long as the show wants him to deliver reaction zingers to the things happening on screen, things are going to remain a bit choppy. And we'll have to get to know these characters a lot better in the time to come. They're working with a fairly big ensemble and this first episode didn't offer much hope that they know how to balance out the characters' screen time just yet. The lack of balance also speaks to the episode's problem with pacing. Jodi's ability to get Dr. McAndrew to agree to perform his surgery after the course of one conversation was a bit unbelievable, and the fact that all of these kids came together by the end of the episode and are all now, ostensibly, friends isn't something I found to be fully believable. But even with all of that being said, I think there's a lot of potential to be found in this first hour. If nothing else, I found the show to be wonderfully entertaining and I hope Fox gives the show room to breathe and to find its audience.