Does Fox’s ‘Red Band Society’ Try Too Hard to Make Sick Kids’ Lives Funny?

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There are some people who won’t watch Fox’s Red Band Society because they think a show about teenagers in a hospital will be too depressing. There are others who won’t watch it because they think a show about teenagers in a hospital will be too saccharine and sentimental. But judging by the pilot, which premieres tonight, the comedy-drama from Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Television could pleasantly surprise both of those groups — if they bother to give it a shot.

The pitch-black first two minutes of Red Band Society efficiently alleviate any anxiety that this is going to be a somber — or relentlessly touching — show. We watch Kara, a bitchy cheerleader, berate a male squad mate for giving her “niplash” and ask him if he’s “manstruating.” Then, we see her fall hard and hit the floor unconscious. Instead of helping, her minions cluster around her and snap Instagram photos, leaving a visibly thrilled young woman in a windbreaker and ponytail to perform mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. The whole scene is set to Brian Eno’s “Needles in the Camel’s Eye,” a sly and refreshing musical choice in an episode that also finds room for Sleater-Kinney (and a pretty cathartic The Fray diss).

Kara ends up in a long-term pediatric care ward at LA’s Ocean Park Hospital, where she immediately sets to work terrorizing the staff and patients — including her roommate, 12-year-old Charlie, who narrates the show from the depths of a coma. (“This is me, talking to you from a coma. Deal with it,” he tells us.) We meet the other teenagers on the ward: Leo (Charlie Rowe), a likable hospital veteran who’s lost a leg to cancer; his friend Dash (Astro), a pot-smoking, nurse-chasing cystic fibrosis patient; and Emma (Ciara Bravo), a smart workaholic who has an eating disorder and a complicated relationship with Leo. Like Kara, Jordi (Nolan Sotillo) is new to Ocean Park, having lied to get an appointment with superstar Dr. McAndrew (Dave Annable). And like Leo, he’s got cancer in his leg. Holding the entire place together is Octavia Spencer’s Nurse Jackson, a sharp-tongued yet deeply caring nurse who’s already primed to dish out some tough, in loco parentis love to her young charges. In the hands of a weaker actress, this character could read as a collection of clichés, but Spencer is talented enough to make her read as a real person.

As it sets the scene, Red Band Society also keeps working hard to establish its dark, often gross and profane sense of humor. Nurse Jackson walks around with a takeout cup of coffee which a barista has labeled as belonging to “scary bitch.” Kara attempts to ply Emma with cigarettes and diet pills. Charlie gets revenge on Kara in the only way his comatose state allows: by farting. Repeatedly. It can feel like the show is trying too hard, at times, to makes these kids’ lives entertaining. But at their best, these moments are a believable reminder that teenagers with life-threatening illnesses are still teenagers — they’ll work any angle to get their hands on a few six-packs of beer, including their best friend’s disability. It’s not all noble suffering.

But there is some of that. In the second half of the (somewhat dense) pilot, moments of poignancy sneak in. We find out what’s wrong with Kara, and it’s serious. The core gang of teens comes together when Leo and Dash help Jordi throw a secret rooftop bon voyage party for his leg. There’s a glimpse of what the hospital staffers talk about amongst themselves, the secret ways in which they indulge these young people who may not live long enough to drink legally. Even steely Nurse Jackson and manipulative Kara have moments of full-on mushiness (although the latter’s is quickly interrupted by an absurd, and very funny in context, shot of her waving a slice of pizza in Charlie’s face).

Other reviewers have criticized the pilot’s inconsistency of tone. TIME‘s James Poniewozik writes that the show “starts off with one foot in the Glee style and one foot, well, in the grave,” while Sonia Saraiya at A.V. Club — who also makes the Glee comparison — judges that, “At its core, what Red Band Society wants to be is a slightly different high-school show, able to draw on the easy emotional stakes of teenage romance and hospital drama.” Saraiya would also like to see the show address the bleak realities of healthcare in America.

I don’t necessarily disagree, on either count, but I remain hopeful that Red Band Society will find a better balance between comedy and drama and politics once it’s far enough into the season to stop having to prove it’s not that kind of kids-with-cancer show. Because otherwise, all the elements are in place for this to be a good, and unusual, series. The dialogue is great. The acting is strong, and never melodramatic. The characters are just archetypal enough to surprise us when their behavior diverges from what we assume they’ll do. And there’s a lot of potential in the supportive yet complicated and sometimes competitive relationships the show is setting up between them.

Ultimately, the pilot does what it needs to do — not to mention more than Glee ever accomplished: it makes us laugh and it makes us care about these kids. Red Band Society hasn’t quite figured out how to reconcile those two aims yet, but if it does, it could become the best primetime show about teenagers American TV has seen in years.