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Emma, the cool girl, and Leo sit on a couch on the roof of the hospital
Emma, the cool girl, and Leo sit on a couch on the roof of the hospital

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Red Band Society is an edgy show about childhood cancer

Medical dramas are a staple of TV. For the past few decades, busy primetime slots have held beloved medical dramas like ER, Grey's Anatomy, and House. But for 2014, the make-or-break medical drama has one big twist: it's about kids.

Red Band Society tells the story of a group of teenagers who live in a hospital. Riffs on all of the classic teenage character tropes — the cheerleader, the cool girl, the rebellious guy, the hero — are here, but they all get smushed together because the characters all have life-threatening conditions. That makes Red Band Society one part teen drama and one part edgy medical drama. The former contributes vivid characters; the latter offers a refusal to be sappy.

Here are four reasons the show is one of the best new shows this fall. And if you're intrigued, check out a full interview with executive producer and showrunner, Margaret Nagle.


1) The characters aren't stereotypes

Red Band Society turns even the most commonly stereotyped characters into rounded people. Early in the premiere, cheerleader Kara (Zoe Levin) ends up in the hospital with a broken arm. She's a popular girl with a mean streak — a character we've seen on almost every show about teens. But Kara is different. She's not immediately relatable, and she stays mean.

That depth of character is amazing because the cast is by no means small. There's Jordi, the immigrant who needs his leg amputated; Emma, the girl with an eating disorder; and Charlie the narrator, who is also in a coma. Already, one episode in, all of them have back-stories and motivations that are easy to understand and to relate to — no easy feat for a new show.

2) It manages sentiment well

A show about kids with cancer could easily fall into mushy, sad tropes that tug on an audience's affections to try and pull the drama along. Red Band Society will have plenty of opportunities to do this as the show goes on, but in the pilot at least, the show strikes a manageable balance between sentiment and reality. In some ways, it's riding the wake of The Fault in Our Stars, which became a huge success thanks to its ability to tackle teenage sickness without becoming morbid.

Red Band manages a similar trick by casting some scenes as serious moments of reflection and hardship and others as moments where playful teens are simply having a good time riding skateboards in the hospital. As the show evolves, it will need to marry these scenes and create a more complicated version of what it means to be "okay," but in the pilot, the swinging between tones works well, and it mirrors the mind of an adolescent cancer patient well.

3) It's wiser than its characters

Red Band Society has a tricky problem: it has to deal with big issues like death and heartbreak and loneliness, but it must do it through the eyes of teenage cancer patients. Because of this premise, the show has the ability to approach concepts at a surface level, or to dig a little bit deeper. Red Band Society chooses to go deeper. The tone of the pilot features a distinct voice that will allow for it to dive into the characters' fears beyond their respective sicknesses in the future. They're still teenagers, who have the same hopes and fears as any other person their age.

That isn't to say that the show doesn't have weak spots in this regard. Emma, the character with an eating disorder, could easily be transformed into a teenage manic-pixie dream girl, and the incessant quoting of Henry V feels a little forced, even for kids reading the book in class together.

4) Octavia Spencer

This show has a lot of young actors, and Octavia Spencer, who won the Oscar for her work in The Help, is the weight it needs to feel serious. In Red Band Society, Spencer plays Nurse Jackson, a woman who doesn't particularly love her job and isn't particularly fond of these teenagers.

From the first opening scene where her character marches into the hospital with a grimace and a cup of coffee, Spencer embodies the complicated narrative of the show: she is at this hospital because she needs to be, even if she doesn't like it and doesn't want to be there. But she's also human. She can't help but be moved by the situations she sees in her day-to-day job. It's that balance of empathy that serves Red Band well.

Kelsey McKinney:When did you start work on Red Band?

Margaret Nagle:I started work on Red Band last July. What happened was I was maybe going to write a pilot, but I wasn't sure, so I was allowing material to be sent to me. I hadn't wrapped my mind around it.

I had been gone that weekend, and I came home and there was a DVD in my plants, and it had been sprinkled on by the sprinklers, and there was a letter from ABC studios. So I put it on at like 10 on Sunday night just to see if it worked. I wasn't sure I was going to write another network pilot, but within 10 minutes, I called my husband, and I said, "Oh boy. Oh my God. I have to find out what is the story to this, because this is amazing." And it was Albert Espinosa's Spanish pilot of Red Band Society.

I called my agent, and she said "I don't know what this is." I just told her that I thought it was funny coming from ABC, because it seems to me like it's more of a Fox show, because you could be edgier [there]. And she told me it was from Fox. It didn't say anything in the letter, so I was like who owns this material? And they said, "Oh, it's Steven Spielberg." So I went to them, and said,  "I love this material. Here's how I'd do it." Fox had put me up for it. But Fox had no idea how personally connected I was to the material.

Kelsey McKinney:So what was that attraction?

Margaret Nagle: I have all this family who are doctors, and I had a brother who was in a coma. I've done so much volunteer work in children's hospitals that I know what those places are like. I knew this was a perfect thing for me to connect to.

It's very funny how these things work out sometimes. There's so much chance and timing. I spoke with Albert Espinosa in Spain, and we just have this love fest going between the two of us. I'd tell him what I wanted to change and add, and it was a very fluid process. We'd go back and forth. Albert had cancer for 14 years. He grew up in one of these hospitals. He did lose his leg. He is an amazing guy, so it was a really fun pilot to work on.

I handed in the first draft of it at the end of November, and then continually rewrote it until it was read by Fox in February. Then it got greenlighted for a pilot. And then I worked on it with our director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon. His father was a doctor, and he spent a lot of time in hospitals. So we had a very specific way we wanted the camera to move. We don't do a lot of close-ups, and there's not a lot of handheld, and yet the camera is moving around a lot. We just wanted to take you into the story emotionally a different way, because it's a story where you have to know in the pilot, you don't have to be afraid to laugh.

Just because you're someone who works in a children's hospital doesn't mean you're not an asshole. Just because you're a kid who's sick doesn't mean you're likable or sympathetic. You're still you. The people who work in pediatrics are very different from the people who work in any other part of the hospital. They are more fun. They are more wild. There's usually something in their backstory that brought them to pediatrics instead of being a heart surgeon. We didn't want it to feel like any hospital show you'd ever seen.

Kelsey McKinney: What did you take from the original story, and what did you add?

Margaret Nagle: So Jordi and Leo and their friendship is from the original. In the original, there is a character like Emma — a girl with an eating disorder who's very smart — but she's not exactly the arc of our Emma.

But then I created eight new characters. People like Octavia Spencer's character didn't exist in the first show. There is a kid in the coma in the original who narrates, but I created a family for him and fleshed out his character. The whole idea of Jordi being an immigrant from Mexico, I fleshed out. Even the characters that had already existed, I gave them new back-stories. I gave them new character arcs. The character Dash, who has cystic fibrosis, I added, because I worked at a camp with kids with cystic fibrosis every summer in high school. I really wanted to create that character.

Brittany Dobler (Rebecca Rittenhouse) the newbie nurse, is based on my cousin. I have a cousin who's working at a children's hospital in L.A., and I went over, and she's 24 and so adorable and all the teenagers love her. She doesn't quite realize exactly why they love her. She has this beautiful figure, and she's so sweet and adorable and new to the job. There's an episode where Brittany writes on a dry erase board, and my cousin had written that on a dry erase board.

You're looking for ways into the story, and helping the audience find their way in. You're looking for characters to go in with. There are certain things that are very much Albert's show, but I've added a lot. I want to be able to appeal to the adults as well.

Kelsey McKinney: Does that mean you hope your viewers are adults?

Margaret Nagle:We live in this world where it's all about demographics, and I actually think it's more about the personality. I want people to watch who want to experience life on a deeper level. I think Red Band is a story about life, and survival, and growing up. For example, Steven Spielberg's E.T. is about kids, but just as many adults watched E.T. as kids did. Or, My So-Called Life. Kids and adults watched that show. My hope is that it's a really mixed audience. I want people who are into the voice of the show, and who relate to that. It's more the mindset that no one in this show feels sorry for themselves, and it's not sentimental. If you're looking for that then it's not your show.

Kelsey McKinney: What's your favorite scene in the pilot?

Margaret Nagle: My very favorite moment in the pilot is Olivia Spencer when she's listening to Jordi talk about the surgery. Just watching her listening is amazing. The grace she has in that moment, and she's so freakin' funny. And she's just such a great actress, but there's something about her in that moment that she's so special and we're so lucky that she agreed to the part.

Even when she starts the pilot and she has that expression on her face like, "I hate my job. I hate coming to work. I'm a scary bitch, back off." That walk of hers through the lobby. She tells us, "Oh my God, we haven't seen this show before." She's not a happy, perfect nurse who is thrilled to come to work. Everybody's afraid of her. I think my favorite moments are her.

Kelsey McKinney: Which character do you identify with the most?

Margaret Nagle:That's really hard, but I really identify with Dash. That was a character that I loved. I've also really liked writing Kara, because I knew people like her at that age, and she deserves some understanding too. Mean, beautiful girls deserve some understanding too. And then I guess Leo. There's a lot of Leo in me. Transitions in any time in your life are really hard. He's got to adopt the attitude that every day is the rest of his life. For me, Leo was a hard character to write, but also really interesting because I had to dig into another part of myself.

Kelsey McKinney: What do you hope audiences get out of it?

Margaret Nagle: The one thing I would love people to take from the pilot is that you're not alone. And if you ever feel alone, just friend me on Facebook, find me on Twitter, and I'll write you back, and we'll talk.


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