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This TV Show Pays Homage To—And Utterly Ruins—The Fault in Our Stars

The latest entry in pop culture’s Year of Sick Teens

Annette Brown/FOX

"This is not a story where beautiful people learn beautiful lessons," Shailene Woodley’s 16-year-old cancer patient warns in the opening moments of The Fault in Our Stars, this summer’s weepy young-adult blockbuster. The movie, which grossed almost $300 million at the box office and is probably responsible for an equivalent windfall at Kleenex, didn’t entirely live up to that promise: As Hazel Lancaster, Shailene Woodley glows like a forest sprite and even learns a lesson or two. The Fault in Our Stars phenomenon—it was a bestselling book by John Green before it became a movie—disowns the glamour of adolescent illness, the idea that sickness will make you better or wiser, even as it courts that same fascination.

“Red Band Society,” which is set in a pediatrics ward, is the latest entry in pop culture’s Year of Sick Teens (see: last month’s If I Stay and ABC Family’s “Chasing Life”) and is similarly eager to prove that it’s not that kind of teen cancer drama—maudlin, sentimental, Nicholas Sparks-ian. The show, which premieres on Fox tonight at 9:00 p.m., would rather be snarky and arch, mixing its syrupy lessons with faux edge. In short, it would rather be “Glee,” which is a tall order; even “Glee” could succeed at being “Glee” for only about a season. And so all the authentic emotion in “Red Band Society” is buried beneath layers of manufactured quirk: a hypochondriac billionaire living in the hospital full-time, a bookish anorexic in an Annie Hall hat, and an 11-year-old narrator in a coma. “Yeah, this is me talking to you from a coma,” Charlie, the coma boy, says. “Deal with it.”

The first character we meet is an archetypal bitchy cheerleader, who peppers her speech with lines from the cutting room floor of a Bring it On script. “Ew. You just gave me niplash,” she tells a male cheerleader on her team. “Are you man-struating?” These aren’t so much jokes as placeholders for jokes. The cheerleader, a pretty blonde named Kara, soon collapses on the gym floor and is rushed to the hospital, where she is diagnosed with an enlarged heart—get it?—and meets the other members of this Breakfast Club. The teenagers live in hospital rooms the size of studio apartments and take class together. They flirt and fight and smoke pot in storage closets. There’s a solid idea here—the emotional volatility of high-school drama transferred to a life-or-death setting—but “Red Band Society” doesn’t want to deal with any of the messy realities of illness. There are no I.V.s or bodily fluids or hovering parents. Despite osteosarcoma or cystic fibrosis or heart problems, the kids are all healthy enough to sneak away on beer runs and drink on the roof (just not healthy enough to live at home and get outpatient care).

“Red Band Society” isn’t this fall’s worst new show. (That honor goes to NBC’s “The Mysteries of Laura,” a police procedural where the chief mystery is how a woman can be both a cop and a mom at—get this—the same time.) But it may be the most disappointing, and not only because it wastes a great cast, including Wilson Cruz (Rickie of “My So-Called Life”) as a nurse. Octavia Spencer also plays a stern-but-kind nurse, a part she’s been typecast in since her first onscreen role—a nurse, in 1996’s A Time to Kill. (In the 18 years since, she’s played a nurse 16 more times.) The young actors are all talented, even if they don’t have much to work with. The show seems to have taken The Fault in Our Stars’s warning about beautiful people learning beautiful lessons as straightforward advice; the pilot episode is filled with so many lessons, I’m not sure what they’ll have left to learn in the rest of the seasons. Some of the worst offenders: “Everybody thinks that when you go to a hospital life stops, but it’s just the opposite. Life starts”; “Your body isn’t you. Your soul is you, and they can never cut into your soul”; “You’re stuck, even if you’re not in a coma.”  

In her review of “Red Band Society” in last week’s New Yorker, Emily Nussbaum pointed out that “teen shows” in the last two decades—like “My So-Called Life,” “Freaks and Geeks,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” and “Veronica Mars”—were TV pioneers in psychological complexity and smart writing. But in the last few years, network television has largely abandoned high school as a setting (“Glee” excluded), ceding the ground of smart, sincere teen TV to cable channels like ABC Family and MTV. Even the CW, which inherited the WB’s mantle as the king of young-adult drama with glossy fun like “Gossip Girl,” has given up on the genre, canceling earnest, emotionally unguarded series like “The Carrie Diaries” and filling its schedule with supernatural shows and comic-book adaptations. There’s room on network television for something that tugs on teen heartstrings. This emotionally manipulative mess isn’t it.