Red Band Society, as a whole, mainly gets by on a) the strength of Octavia Spencer’s performance, b) the likability of the teenage performers, and c) the inherent drama of having a bunch of sick kids waiting around, hoping to get better, knowing they might not.
Its main drawbacks, at the moment, are a) a tendency toward gimmicks for gimmicks’ sake (I don’t mind coma boy as a narrative thread, and I guess I’m all right with everyone visiting him in their dream state, but the idea of him as all-seeing narrator just doesn’t work), b) heavy-handed writing that makes sure you always Understand What the Scene Is About (I’m sure the thinking here is that shows about teenagers tend to mostly attract teenage viewers, but it’s really condescending to assume kids can’t figure out subtext and themes on their own), and c) all the adult characters besides Nurse Jackson badly need personalities besides “sexy nurses and doctors that look sexy and care about kids while looking sexy.”
The first two problems were well on display in last night’s episode, most egregiously in the flash-forwards that kicked things off. They didn’t add anything to the story, and every scenario, once the full context was revealed, turned out to be pretty much what you expected it to be. But credit where credit is due, as there was a concerted effort in “How Did We Get Here?” (I’m pretty sure the flash-forwards were used solely to justify this title) to fill in the characters of Dr. McAndrew and Nurse Brittany beyond “attractive doctor” and “basic.”
So Dr. McAndrew decides he wants to get back together with Dr. Mandy Moore, despite Nurse Jackson’s best eye-rolling (“Does stupidity run in your family?”). Then he meets her new boyfriend, who works at the International Rescue Committee. This gives Dr. Moore an excuse to do her favorite thing: mention she went to Africa. After meeting the new guy, Dr. McAndrew panics and buys a banana, which I don’t think is supposed to be a metaphor. She later asks him what’s up. (“Your tone is definitely implying that something’s wrong.”) He’s all, “You have a new boyfriend, waaaah,” and then she unloads: He broke up with her, they dated for three years and he never once brought up marriage, and did she mention she went to Africa? And for the kicker: “You are really good at working with kids, but it’s because you don’t want to grow up. And you don’t want to be committed to anybody or anything.” Writing about this show is easy because the writers make sure that we are very clear about the subtext.
So Dr. McAndrew goes off to get a drink and brood, only to discover Nurse Brittany’s initial salvo into online dating. (Of course her date is checking his phone the entire time.) Noticing her “help me” eyes, Dr. McAndrew goes over to save her, and somehow she comes up with the story that she’s carrying the surrogate baby of Dr. McAndrew and his lover; the “I don’t want to catch gay” fake hug her date gives the doc as he leaves is priceless. They start talking about how dating is hard, and then they kiss, as they must on a TV show like this, and Rebecca Rittenhouse plays this well. Brittany’s mouth says she knows they shouldn’t do this, but the rest of her says otherwise. So after they wake up together, she’s immediately asking how they’re going to play this, and was probably about to ask where they should register before he’s all like, wait up a sec. He thought this was “like a onetime thing, you know?”
Her: “I don’t do that.”
Him: ” … You did.”
Her: [Punches face.]
And … scene. Childish and commitment-phobic isn’t the most original characterization you’ll see on TV these days, but at least the writers chose something for this character besides “sexy,” and it’s a trait that clashes well with his obvious professionalism, and Dave Annable clearly appreciated the opportunity to run the gamut from moony-eyed to petulant to caddish in one episode.
On the whole, there was one plot point too many in this outing, which left two of the side stories feeling slight. The first was that the pop star Delaney Shaw checked in for exhaustion, leading to the best line of the night.
Dr. Mandy Moore: “Do you know how hard it is to be a teen pop star?”
Dr. McAndrew: “No.”
Dr. Mandy Moore: “Neither do I, thank God.”
I am certain that the target audience for this show has no idea that Mandy Moore ever had a singing career. Anyway, Dash, of course, realizes that said pop star might lower her standards while staying in the hospital, and after calling shotgun, he uses every card he has to try to hook up. (“I’m worried about dying without ever fully experiencing the rapture that comes from having sex with one of People’s most beautiful people.”) And it almost works, until Jordi cock-blocks him by rushing in and demanding she hook him up with her manager, as he needs money to emancipate himself, and “music has always been my dream.” (Has it? Has it really?) She agrees to help if he gets her some pain pills, which he steals from an old lady, which is pretty fucked up. But after he plays her a song (all the while Dash looks on, ready to Belushi his friend if he doesn’t leave so he can score), she reneges on the deal, as he’s just so talented that her manager would clearly dump her for him. (Really?) Instead, she pays him for the pills, effectively turning him into a drug dealer and thus kicking off this character’s next plot, I assume. (He’s still $300 or so shy of his emancipation fee.) Dark, but it also felt rushed.
But not as rushed as Kara’s plotline, which basically consisted of her wanting to have sex with Hunter, getting caught and then admonished by Nurse Jackson (we’re still early in the show, but if Nurse Jackson doesn’t get a love interest or a sex life soon, there’s going to be some think pieces), her ditching her heart monitor on a comatose old man, her deciding to wait because she actually really likes Hunter, and then Hunter collapsing from infection, and then some words of wisdom from NJ: “My job is to protect your heart, in every possible way.” I get that the idea here was to show the character actually caring about someone else only to get reminded about the fragility of life, but the switch from a plot about a farcical search for a place to have sex to a lesson about the fragility of life felt choppy.
One of the issues this show will have if it lasts long enough (and … maybe it won’t?) is that the characters will either feel better enough to leave or, uh, die. (Or just live in the hospital for years and years, which is also pretty depressing.) We’ll see how the writers handle this in the long term, but for now both Leo and Emma learn they can go home soon. Leo is pretty psyched, but Emma, despite putting up appearances, is clearly terrified, partly because she’s worried about losing Leo and mostly because she knows she’s not ready. (The scene where Emma tells the therapist exactly what she wants to hear is the rare example of this show showing instead of telling, and of course it’s all undone later when Emma explains how she knows to do that.) Leo, determined to prove that they can make it work, takes her on the real first date they should have had (his instructions for her to not take a book was perfect) and then accidentally sets his foot on fire. It would have been better if his entire prosthetic leg was on fire. Go big or go home, Red Band Society.
To make up for the fire, Leo then brings Emma chocolates. Wrong move, bro. Leo likes to talk about how he’s empathic, but he’s also a teenage boy and thus prone to dunderheadedness. “I’m anorexic. Do you get that on any level? You want me to be normal, and I’m never going to be.” She then goes on to explain how sick it makes her that everyone just wants to cure her and move on, when she knows she can’t be fixed. It’s a shame the writers feel the need to clarify the feelings that Ciara Bravo was already imparting just fine. But those same writers can still nail a moment, such as the end, after Emma’s dad comes to take her home, when she removed her red band (side note: Did Jordi ever get a new red band? People on this show are always dramatically taking them off) and tells Leo, “It was nice to meet you.” Ouch. That’s fucking cold. Of course, the show isn’t going to write this character off just yet, so we can look forward to a brutal relapse on next week’s fall finale. See you there!