Atlanta-shot 'Red Band Society' may feature sick teens but it's not (too) maudlin

Credit: Rodney Ho

Credit: Rodney Ho

Fox clearly has high hopes for its fall drama "Red Band Society," which features Octavia Spencer ("The Help") and David Annable ("Brothers & Sisters') and a cast of mostly unknown kids in a pediatric ward.

The network sent the cast to several major cities across the country over the summer, where they aired screenings of the pilot in theaters and local children's hospitals, including Children's Healthcare of Atlanta in July. Fox set up a social media campaign that made the pilot available online for more than a week in August after raising $100,000 for five health charities.

Fox hopes word of mouth will carry the show forward because the premise of kids with chronic and potentially deadly illnesses could turn viewers off.  That pilot episode debuts on TV for the first time Wednesday at 9 p.m.

The producers tried mightily in the pilot to balance schmaltz, humor and typical teen relationship drama.

"We're walking that thin line of dramedy," said Spencer after the Atlanta screening in July. She plays a tough but caring nurse in the ward.

The show itself features various tropes: the mean girl who has a heart issue, a brooding teen with long-term cancer, a rebellious dude with cystic fibrosis, a sweet artistic type with an eating disorder and a boy who talks  his way into treatment for cancer and may lose his leg.

Zoe Levin, who plays the mean girl cheerleader, said after the screening that despite it all, "these are just normal kids. They're in an unfortunate situation. They're making the best of  the situation. The hospital isn't as depressing as people think. There's a lot of light and happiness and hope. We hope we shine some light on it."

"This is about life," said Ciara Bravo, who Emma, the girl with the eating disorder, "not about death."

In other words, characters won't be dropping like an episode of "The Walking Dead."

Credit: Rodney Ho

Credit: Rodney Ho

But with two recent summer young adult films focused on dying teens, the comparisons are inevitable.

The Guardian says "it's like watching 'Fault of Our Stars' every week." The writer also likens it to a "less-edgy 'Glee.' "

Alessandra Stanley of the New York Times uses the "Breakfast Club" comparison of disparate teens who are forced together, "only here, detention isn't Saturday-morning study hall, it's a hospital."

"It’s a depressing setting, of course," she writes, "but the show tries to inject humor and arch self-awareness right away. The narrator is in a coma.

Indeed, the 12-year-old coma patient can hear everything that is going on and can even converse with patients in their subconscious. He's based on the show's creator Margaret Nagle's brother, who was in a coma for five years and could also hear the goings-on around him despite his inability to communicate himself.

Here's a trailer:

Set in Los Angeles, the show is shot in Atlanta thanks to tax credits.

For eagle-eyed viewers from Atlanta, many scenes of the sun-dappled hospital are actually the High Museum.

But much of the set is actually at EUE Screen Gems near Lakewood Amphitheatre. I visited last month, where there were multiple rooms for the kids, a circular nurse's station, a doctor's lounge, a kids' room and a cafeteria. At the time I was there, they were still planning to also create an emergency room. Spencer said every time she enters the set, she gets lost because there's always something new added on.

I watched a couple of scenes that I think will appear in the sixth episode or so. One features Dave Annable's doctor character criticizing a parent for letting her son leave the hospital without telling him. "Things are going to get harder before they get easier," he admonishes her. "There won't always be a quick fix."

"Let me be the mother and you be the doctor," she responds. The twist: they have the hots for each other.

Later, a nurse (played by Rebecca Rittenhouse) is admonishing an ailing teen (played by Ciara Bravo) for not wanting to leave. "I think you're getting too comfortable in the hospital," she tells the girl. "At some point, you have to get out there. This is an excuse to ease your way back into the social scene." Then she adds, "I'm not saying this as your nurse. I'm saying this as your friend."

"I'm taking it I don't have much of a choice," the teen responds, bemused.

Then the director reads a line the coma-boy/narrator is supposed to say: "Have you ever heard the one about the nurse, the cheerleader and the anorexic who walk into a homecoming dance? Me neither."

Credit: Rodney Ho

Credit: Rodney Ho

 TV preview

"Red Band Society," 9 p.m., Wednesdays, starting Sept. 17, Fox