In June, my friend Gina and I were able to catch a screening of the premiere episode of Red Band Society at the ATX TV Festival. We sat in the front row in the small theater not fully knowing what to expect. By the end we were both crying our eyes out and hoping the other wouldn’t notice. On Wednesday everyone else has a chance to finally watch Red Band Society. It’s not without its weaknesses, sure, but it’s also worth watching.
Red Band Society focuses on a group of teens in a children’s hospital, their adult doctors and nurses, and the other people in their lives. Mostly, however, it’s about these teenagers who have to live their lives in the hospital — cancer, coma, organ transplant, eating disorder, etc. — and try to make the best of it. Its weakness comes in the form of its charm. It’s treacly and a little cheesy, but also earnest and compassionate. After the screening we attended there was a Q&A to follow with show runner Margaret Nagle. She specifically told us that none of the characters will die this season (this is not a spoiler — it’s been stated in almost every interview/review) and they instead will focus on the kids living their lives with these horrible ailments. That’s my biggest problem with the show: there’s no fear of mortality. These kids have diseases that will surely kill them and it seems like an easy way to avoid tough subjects by just completely ignoring the issue at hand. I’m sure as the series advances maybe they’ll change their mind, but if there’s no real fear for the characters then that just sort of screams weak to me.
When I was 18 my brother, 17, was diagnosed with cancer. It was advanced and he immediately had surgery to remove one kidney, his spleen and part of his pancreas. He spent well over a month at the local hospital. Every single day I would visit him and often have dinner together in his room. Since he wasn’t 18 yet they kept him in the pediatric ward. It was fun and laid back and the idea that there were all these kids on this floor, possibly near death, was never the feeling I got while there. It was a stupidly happy place; the kind of place that leaves you feeling hopeful and happy, ironically.
After he left the hospital for the first time, the cancer soon began to spread to his lungs and his spine. He would make routine trips to MD Anderson in Houston. On rare occasions my sister and I got to go with him. At MD Anderson there was this whole room dedicated to the under-18 crowd; no adults were allowed. (They let me in as a favor to my brother even though I was too old.) There were video games and TVs and books and games and it was the greatest room in the world. The room felt like an entirely different entity than the hospital. I spent so much time in there with all these fellow bald cancer kids and it was the time I felt most alive and was able to completely take my mind off my brother’s diagnosis. Once again, it was a stupidly happy place, full of optimism and the “C” word wasn’t allowed to be uttered.
A hospital is not a place for a child to live their life. Sometimes, however, when there are no other options the hospital becomes your “place of bliss” to quote Joseph Campbell. My brother ultimately lost his life to cancer, but those months he spent in the hospital made the time a little less sad and morose and he didn’t have to think about his own mortality in those moments.
Getting to spend such great time with my brother while this disease ravaged his body will forever stay with me. Seeing the care and attention the doctors and nurses and staff put in to making the hospital a safe, welcoming place was extraordinary. Seeing the friendships develop and relationships beginning to form was magical.
Red Band Society takes all of that and really fleshes it out in a beautiful way. The characters tend to be stereotypical, but we’re watching stars in the making. (Octavia Spencer is especially great in the lead role.) They are charismatic and handle the material well.
I’m not sure I would have liked the show as much as I have if it had not been for my brother. I watch TV as an escape from real life; it’s not often TV depicts my actual life. It’s going to be difficult for me to watch but it’s an important show with a heavy topic. It’s worth watching and talking about.
Watch this show and ignore its faults. Watch this show and at the end open up your arms and imagine me wrapping you up in a giant hug. I’m here for you.
Image Credit: FOX