In terms of manipulating an audience, few things are more reliable than sick or imperiled kids. With that as a given, Fox’s “Red Band Society” labors to feel uplifting, not depressing, by filtering a “The Breakfast Club”-like erosion of high-school caste systems through the leveling effect of a potentially fatal diagnosis. Narrated by a young boy in a coma (a device somewhere between “Reversal of Fortune” and “The Lovely Bones”), the pilot doesn’t do enough to establish these archetypal characters — adults or children. And there’s cause to doubt whether the show will have the time to effectively bridge that gap.
Developed by Margaret Nagle from a Spanish series, and counting the very busy Steven Spielberg among its producers, the program operates on two tracks: focusing on the children brought together by illness — creating an environment, as one helpfully notes, where “the walls break down” — and on the hospital personnel assigned to treat them, which includes tending to their fragile emotions as well as their bodies.
Of course, being sick does little to erase the hormonal eruptions one would expect, such as a fast-talking patient named Dash (Astro) trying to trick a young nurse (Rebecca Rittenhouse) into adding an extra dimension to his sponge bath.
For the most part, the initial story is driven by two new arrivals: A cheerleader (Zoe Levin) with a bad attitude (a nurse calls her “Eva Peron”), who’s such an accomplished mean girl she even blows cigarette smoke into the face of the coma kid (Griffin Gluck); and a boy (Nolan Sotillo) about to have his leg amputated, while receiving guidance from his been-around-the-block roommate (Charlie Rowe).
Among the adults, there’s Octavia Spencer as a tough-but-caring nurse who oversees the pediatric ward (a barista scrawls “Scary bitch” on her coffee cup) and Dave Annable (“Brothers & Sisters”) as a dreamy doctor. Griffin Dunne drops in, too, as a wealthy hypochondriac.
Yet the coup of landing Spencer (an Oscar winner for “The Help”) is flummoxed in part by the familiarity of her role. And 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.
Produced for Fox by ABC Studios, the network has scheduled the show behind “Hell’s Kitchen,” hardly the most compatible of pairings. Put those factors together, and it doesn’t make for a very promising prognosis, which, admittedly, doesn’t put this debut in a particularly exclusive club among the fall TV season’s new shows.
“This is me talking to you from a coma,” the narrator explains cheerfully. “Deal with it.”
Or maybe, don’t.