If Red Band Society hadn’t gotten canceled halfway through its first season, this show would have eventually developed an insurmountable structural problem: the main characters would always have to be just sick enough that they can’t go home, but not so sick that the show becomes too damn depressing for a mainstream soap opera starring teenagers. The only alternative would have been the core cast members having to either leave after their characters had recovered (a move the producers would probably like to avoid, as very few shows teen shows actually let their characters graduate, à la Friday Night Lights or Degrassi) … or, uh, die (a move the producers would probably really like to avoid, unless one of the actors was being a pain).
Or someone’s insurance could run out, I suppose, but we’re on episode 11 and that still hasn’t come up, so why start worrying about it now?
Of course, practically speaking, the characters are here because they are physically sick and need to get better, but narratively, our five leads (well, four, as Dash is perpetually underdeveloped, even though Astro has the most natural charisma of the entire teenage cast) are all here to grow up and recover from various emotional wounds (Jordi’s neglect, Kara’s selfishness, Emma’s feelings of worthlessness, Leo’s solipsism). The problem is that this potentially rich metaphor is something the show only occasionally references. The producers of Red Band Society seem primarily concerned with making breezy, easy-to-digest mainstream entertainment, which isn’t inherently a bad thing, but when your show is about sick kids in a hospital, you need to commit to your themes no matter what, or you’re going to get your last three episodes burned off on Saturday night. This could have been a rich, compelling show about growing up and growing past, but instead it’s an amiable enough show that’s hard to hate or love.
For example, Jordi has recently taken to selling pain medication (and aspirin doctored to look like pain medication) to pay for his application to be legally emancipated. This could have been a compelling look at what a desperate, lonely kid would do to be free … but the way this episode plays out, it ultimately feels like an excuse for Jordi to have a guilt attack and run away during his deposition, thus blowing his chance at emancipation, and thus ensuring he won’t be going anywhere for a while. At least Nurse Jackson gets to make a stirring/futile speech about how he has “more years in that soul of his than all of us combined.” After his appeal fails, Jordi comes clean about the drugs, and because she is the best, Nurse Jackson is mainly hurt that he didn’t ask her for help directly (“I don’t know how to ask for help. I’m not wired that way”) and then assures Jordi that the fact that he came clean proves he’s doesn’t need to worry about becoming like his criminal mother.
As Unnecessary Voice-over Coma Boy’s Pop-Pop once said, guilt is useless emotion. (Pop-Pop must be a New Order fan.) This good advice is of no help to Leo and Kara, who have decided they are not going to talk about hooking up, and then spend the rest of the episode stewing in guilt.
Kara discovers that while she was … busy, her ex-boyfriend Hunter received a liver transplant, and before he went into surgery, he arranged it so that if his body rejects the organ and he doesn’t make it through, then Kara gets to have his heart. Take it away, Unnecessary Voice-over Coma Boy: “I once couldn’t sleep because I stepped on a ladybug. Imagine how Kara feels. She cheated on the guy who literally gave her his heart.”
Kara reacts by getting blotto, demanding butterscotch, and making fun of Dr. Handsome. (“I can’t blow off steam by playing darts and bro-hugging it out to ‘Piano Man.’”) She preemptively refuses to take the heart; Hunter’s sister sets her straight, but not before making it perfectly clear that she hopes it doesn’t come to that. (“If it’s between him dying and you dying, I pick you.”) Sadly, Hunter doesn’t make it (and, wow, that surgery was pretty damn gross for this usually squeamish show), but after Mandy Moore sees Kara give Hunter’s sister a hug, she’s all “fine, the drunk girl can have the stupid heart.” (Oh yeah, there was a plotline about how Mandy Moore’s head doctor wants to appeal Hunter’s decision for a direct donation and get the organ to someone more deserving. It makes her character even more unlikable. And we do not come to Mandy Moore for unlikability!)
Leo deals with his guilt in a less drunken fashion. His parents arrive and tell him that, after talking with his physical therapist, he can go home that day. But he also discovers that Emma is back in the hospital, and it seems like her eating disorder might have caused permanent, irreparable damage to her heart. Before he can figure out a way to convince his parents to let him stay so he can be there for Emma, however, Dash, always the voice of reason, sets him straight: “You make her worse. As long as she has you to focus on, she’ll never be able to focus on herself. Set her free.” (Dash, with the real talk.)
So Leo tells Emma about Kara, and she tells him (very loudly) to get out. But life is too short to hold grudges at Ocean Park Hospital. Once Hunter dies, Emma forgives Kara, and they bond over both hating their mother, and then when Leo gets some unexplained but presumably bad-enough-to-keep-him-at-the-hospital-for-the-foreseeable-future news about his MRI scan, Emma gives him a hug in a very sweet, final shot. As far as what that news is, you’ll have to come back next Saturday for what Fox is billing as “a special two hours of Red Band Society,” which is certainly one way to put it.