Magazine article The New Yorker

Demographic Art

Magazine article The New Yorker

Demographic Art

Article excerpt


Genre trouble in "Red Band Society" and "Outlander." "Red Band Society" mines an adolescent fantasy: that sickness is a form of glamour.

"Red Band Society," a jaunty teen mortality series from Fox, begins with a bang: a cheerleader collapses, mid-cheer, onto the gym floor. Fellow-students form a circle, snapping pictures with their cell phones. Only one uses her phone to call for medical attention--a crushed-out girl who, when instructed to perform CPR on her idol, says, "Really? Yes!," then dives in for mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

As this sequence suggests, "Red Band Society"--which is set in a hospital, among a group of sick teen-agers who party, bond over impending surgeries, and engage in a variety of doomed, freighted romances--isn't especially interested in the downside of terminal illness. Everyone is Abercrombie hot; cancer, in this world, seems suspiciously correlated with high cheekbones. It's basically "Glee" plus "Grey's Anatomy," with a streak of "Scrubs" and a touch of "The Lovely Bones." (The story, which is adapted from a Catalan show, is narrated by a wise little boy in a coma, who silently absorbs the melodramas around him.) The show mines a primal adolescent fantasy: that sickness might be a form of glamour, making a person special and deeper than other humans. "Everyone thinks that when you go to the hospital life stops," Coma Boy intones. "But it's just the opposite: life starts."

Whether you find this conceit offensive or escapist will depend on your mood. For me, the crassness outweighed any charm. Zoe Levin plays the sick cheerleader, Kara, a mean girl with an enlarged heart--the kind of irony that the show plays for every possible beat. The amazing Octavia Spencer is a tough but caring nurse, who shows up with a coffee mug reading "Scary Bitch." There are hunky doctors, as well, and a set of teen-age boys who spar and bond: the bad boy Leo (Charlie Rowe), who has bone cancer; the sensitive Jordi (Nolan Sotillo), who also has bone cancer; and Dash (Astro), who has cystic fibrosis (and who--in the pilot, at least--is stuck in the slang-slinging black-best-friend/player role). There's also Emma (Ciara Bravo), who wears a quirky-girl hat straight out of the Amy Grant "Baby, Baby" video, and who suffers from anorexia, although her illness is treated more as a romantic obstacle than as a potentially fatal disease. On occasion, the dialogue delivers a rude punch, as in the banter about what Jordi will do with his amputated leg after surgery: "Yeah, I'm planning to freeze it." "Like wedding cake," Emma responds. But, mostly, the show is a bid for a ready-made audience: the ones who ate up John Green's young-adult novel "The Fault in Our Stars," which has sold ten million copies and inspired a hit movie starring Shailene Woodley.

That commercial gambit may pay off, but not because the texts are all that similar: "The Fault in Our Stars" is a far more thoughtful work. A romance between a very sick girl, Hazel Grace Lancaster, and a dreamy boy, Augustus Waters, who has bone cancer, the book is aimed at teen-agers without being tailored to their needs alone. Unlike "Red Band Society," "The Fault in Our Stars" treats its heroine's parents like real people, not like cartoons--which is often the watermark of ambitious teen stories in any medium. Among the many appealing qualities of Green's novel is how much it's about storytelling itself, and the way in which books function as a badge of identity, a marker of taste and values. Hazel is obsessed with an experimental, adult literary novel, "An Imperial Affliction," which was created by a David Foster Wallace-like genius. Her private love for this novel--she reads it again and again, like a bible--is an expression of her identity as an outsider, an intellectual girl, forced to reckon with questions that her friends can't understand, such as the effect that her inevitable death will have on her parents. But Hazel has no problem with the fact that her boyfriend, Augustus, prefers a different kind of book: a series of video-game novelizations, whose simple, blunt formulas satisfy his own needs--for a fantasy in which he saves lives, over and over. …

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