I Was Rooting For You, Red Band Society

[CN: talk of eating disorders, hospitalization, diseases]

photo cred: @fingerribbon

The faults in Red Band Society are numerous

I still am. There were several new shows this year which piqued my interest. Some I’ve already completely given up on. There is at least one that I continue to try to embrace, despite my issues with it. Disclaimer: I am not a fan of “your favorite is problematic” and over-policing of entertainment. My music, TV, and movie shows do not often reflect my personal beliefs. If I were to say I’d never listen or watch something with a “problematic” lyric or story or actor, I’d have nothing to entertain myself with. Sometimes, I just like to unplug and get lost in a song or a show.

If Red Band Society was not dealing with pediatric patients, specifically teenagers who also happen to be the show’s demographic, I don’t think I’d be writing this. I would not be nearly as concerned over what this show and its writers are getting wrong, and I’d never dedicate 2500 words to explain my problems with it.

My worry hits home. My 13-year old daughter immediately loved the show. She heard from friends that it was great. I know Tumblr is all over it. Though it’s ratings have put it at risk of cancellation, teens seem to love this show. It’s no surprise given the success of The Fault In Our Stars and If I Stay, both YA-bestsellers-turned-movies dealt with the mortality of teens. Everyone is looking for “the next TFiOS.

I want this show to be our thing, an hour each week where my teen and I hang out. When your child becomes a teenager, you start grasping at any little thing to stay connected to them. Right now, we have a very close relationship. We get each other’s humor and thankfully I understand gifs and know what the latest memes are. My daughter knows no topic is off the table and that my door is always open. Still, she is a teen. Teens are their own species. I know at any point, she could decide I’m the worst person in the world and not want even five minutes with me. So, yeah, I continue to watch this show, with her.

Red Band Society follows a group of kids hospitalized for a variety of reasons. Leo and Jordi are in various stages of cancer treatment, Dash has cystic fibrosis, Kara needs a heart transplant, and Emma has anorexia. Lastly, Charlie, the narrator, is a child who is in a coma. Somehow, they all have come to know each other. Therein lies my first issue.

For starters, the cancer surgeon, Dr. McDreamy, er, I mean, McAndrew, wouldn’t ever meet a patient hospitalized for anorexia, unless she also had cancer. So it’s absurd for him to care, let alone even know who Emma is. Not to mention, I’m sure there’s some HIPAA violations going on around this hospital. It’s highly unrealistic that a teen receiving treatment for an eating disorder would be housed in a pediatric wing amongst those other kids. She would be in either the psychiatric unit, eating disorder unit, or in a separate and specialized hospital altogether. This bothers me.

A story could be told with a focus on a disease or condition. Every person with cancer is not the same. People with eating disorders are not a monolith. You could take any of these kids and put them with peers facing similar issues, and still have 6 powerful and unique tales to tell. Instead, the writers have contrived a scenario where all these patients are somehow so involved that they become the hospital’s Breakfast Club (that lasts far longer than just one day though).

Emma’s storyline is most worrisome to me. Two episodes in, and it’s clear the writers are avoiding spending too many lines of their script to tell the realities of eating disorders. They glamorize it in fact. Emma is always fashionable, she looks incredibly healthy, and her room is decorated nicer than my home. The staff leave her on her own much of the time, and thus far, the show has yet to show her in a single therapy session. They deliver her meals and leave them, no one watches her eat. What the hell is this girl doing in this hospital that is doing absolutely nothing for her?

The reality is, when hospitalized for an eating disorder, the staff watches you like a hawk. Consumption of meals and caloric intake is closely monitored. The weigh-in scene really bugged me last week. I felt showing her consume a large amount of water and insert rolls of coins into her bra were super problematic. I realize there are plenty of “pro ana” sites out there, unfortunately, and teens can get tips online quite easily. But seeing this play out in a show really got to me. Beyond that, I just was appalled at how unrealistic the scene was. If you are going to portray someone hospitalized for an eating disorder, at least make the weigh-in scene realistic and be honest about the invasion of privacy that comes along with any recovery.

This week I had to keep from yelling at the television when Emma opens her nightstand to expose several of those mini boxes of cereal. Apparently no one in that hospital is keeping track of anything this patient is doing. They don’t have random room checks? Looking under her mattress or in her drawers for diet pills or other signs of relapse? I’m not saying I expect television to be 100% real, but in this case it is detrimental to show this story unfold the way it has been. They don’t depict how difficult it is to live with an eating disorder, let alone to be hospitalized for it.

Recovery, especially the early weeks, is a dark and difficult period of someone’s life. Showing teens that their makeup, hair, and wardrobe will be on-point, and they can just hang out and have fun all day while they “get help” for their anorexia is misleading. This storyline makes me cringe, and I do worry it glorifies eating disorders, and makes needing to receive treatment for one seem more like a vacation than the painful reality it is.

Compare this to a show like Parenthood, also a dramedy, that has tackled cancer, drug and alcohol problems, autism, and all sorts of other life moments and diagnoses yet managed to keep those stories quite realistic. Life can still be funny amid challenging times. I don’t see why Red Band Society hasn’t taken a page from Parenthood and see that you can show the lows and even in those moments, laughs can be had and you can walk away feeling uplifted.

I tried to find a clip that exemplified this, and was unable to. Either not enough video clips from Parenthood exist (there were lots of fan-made music videos and tributes) or that to get the whole spectrum of emotions felt in a single episode of the show, you have to actually watch the entire 43 minutes.
Braverman Dance Part (Parenthood)
If you haven’t watched the show yet, do yourself a favor and check it out on Netflix or Hulu. Go watch it. See the Bravermans dance (a lot). Be prepared to ugly-cry (a lot).

Red Band Society does have some lump-in-the-throat moments, but offers little sense of the realities these sick kids are facing. I want to feel deeper emotions when I watch this show, otherwise the characters and their lives don’t mean as much to me. At best, this show lacks the depth needed to touch our hearts and at worst, it serves to romanticize being in a hospital. I think about The Fault in Our Stars which has plenty of moments of teens just being teens. They are falling in love, experience heartbreak, being annoyed by their parents, playing video games, you know, usual teen stuff. But they must also deal with cancer and doctors’ appointments, hospitalizations, medical devices, and all that interferes with any sense of being just a regular kid. This is the reality for kids who are hospitalized and dealing with illness. That should be a strong theme for this show–kids trying their damnedest to just be a kid juxtaposed with needing every part of their health and activities monitored.

An element I hope Red Band Society eventually tackles is what happens when a fellow patient is released from the hospital. The kid who is allowed to leave may feel hesitant, like they are losing a part of themselves, and they will feel guilt for being able to. Those who stay back will feel jealousy and frustration. Show us some of this emotional roller coaster. I’d like to see more reality on the actual unit too. Do you know how scary it is to be a kid in a pediatric ward and hear a code blue? Or to learn that a fellow patient has died on the floor? That is what being hospitalized as a kid is like. Terrifying. Facing your own mortality before you are an adult sucks.

This scene from TFiOS seems to be what Red Band Society is trying to achieve, but is failing at.

It works because Hazel, Augustus, and Isaac are not at that moment in the hospital. They have earned back their freedom after surgeries and treatments. This victory and their act of rebellion is only given to those on the outside. Someone still in the midst of their treatment and hospital stay won’t experience this. They are too ill. They are too chained up to their beds via monitor leads and tubes. They may not be able to get out of bed, or their room, let alone stroll down the hallway. There is little room to rebel and feel free when you’re a teen in a hospital.

That is another stark difference. In TFiOS, the hospital scenes were realistic. There were rules and visiting hours, wires and machines beeping. That was why “life on the outside” was remarkably freeing. TFiOS manages to still display how kids battling cancer have relationships, go on vacations, do the ridiculous things you and I did as teens, but it depicts it realistically–a trip for Hazel required permission from her specialists, a limited time gone, etc. They weren’t whimsically escaping the hospital for adventures. The more accurate portrayal of this makes a book and movie like TFiOS and a show like Parenthood cling to you. Their characters and circumstances are so real, they touch you, and those characters become like family.

Instead of characters we feel connections to and care about, Red Band gives us Kara who is in need of a new heart yet drinks beer, roams the hospital to score some weed off of a hospital employee, steals pills from a 5-year old, and has sex in her hospital bed. We see Dash with cystic fibrosis who skateboards through the ward, never wears a mask over his face, apparently rarely gets a breathing treatment, propositions the young nurse, takes bets from patients throughout the hospital, and somehow put on a long-sleeve shirt while wearing an IV.

Don’t even get me started about the rooftop party, the hook-ups, running through the halls, or hospital rooms that are larger, brighter, and cooler than any dorm room ever. They can freely wander throughout the entire hospital, even leave the grounds, and it appears they have no curfew. None of these kids, the two with cancer, the one with CF, or the one whose heart is failing are ever immunocompromised? Really? They can just hang in the cafeteria and move around without a concern over infection? Oh, and next week, this group of patients are headed to a homecoming and to the movies? It’s hard to believe these kids are actually dealing with the diagnoses they have. How am I supposed to feel any empathy for them?

Also, this pediatric floor must have one hell of a child life team and apparently the hospital has no security protocol whatsoever. These kids must have incredible insurance policies too, ones that pay for unlimited days in a hospital. The hospital is going to need all that money, they’ll be broke before long once all the kids’ families sue for malpractice and neglect.

Perhaps the trouble is that I spent too much time in hospitals as a teen to know none of this show would be possible. But it’s because of this that I want more out of this show, I want these kids’ stories to be told. Red Band Society could be so much more. I hope it digs deeper and tries harder. Emma’s storyline is most in need of a reality check, for the sake of young viewers who may look to her for inspiration. I recently came across a short called Likeness that I feel does a great job of showing what it feels like to have an eating disorder. Obviously, it’s only a few minutes long and only gives a glimpse into a moment of one person with an ED, but it’s an important film. Likeness was written by Rodrigo Prieto and his daughter, Ximena, who dealt with an eating disorder in her early teens. Parenthood’s showrunner, Jason Katims’ son has autism. John Green pulled inspiration from a teen named Esther who had cancer.

I’m not saying any of these pieces are without fault, or that they resemble every person who ever dealt with any of those diagnoses. It does matter though that at the core, there are real people and perspectives behind them. Touching upon and learning from lived experiences matters when print, television, and film attempt to tackle these heavy topics. Otherwise, I say, just don’t bother. Your stories will be lazy, misguided, and sorely lacking.

Life is complex. Teenagers are complex. Diagnoses are complex. Underestimating an audience’s potential to understand complicated storylines and their desire for complexity in writing is a big mistake. Parenthood and TFiOS both get this, neither sugar-coat life. In 2014, kids and teens are more aware than any generation before them. Too many times we disrespect young people because we think they don’t get it. Stop this. Trust me, they get it, even more than some adults. Their access to the Internet connects them globally, to an array of people and issues. If writers are going to attempt to show life, teenagers, and diagnoses, the stories must be complex. Trust me, after sitting in a theater during The Night Before Our Stars, I can tell you that teens want to feel something from their media. (Also, they kindly share tissues with fellow strangers who are bawling their eyes out.)

I’m going to continue to watch this show. I did tell my daughter my concerns about it, and she felt similar. She still likes the characters (it helps that they are easy on the eyes, that’s for sure) and the show but acknowledges the lack of realism where it counts. There are elements and characters I like. There have been endearing moments that do feel true.

This show has potential. With some tweaks in the writing and development, I actually think it could be phenomenal. If the storylines continue on in the same manner portrayed thus far, particularly Emma’s, I may have to rethink my comfort in my daughter watching Red Band Society. For now though, we have our Wednesday night TV hour together and I’m happy about that.

I did tell my daughter I’m going to convince myself they’re on a spaceship, then I won’t get so ticked off over the details this show has gotten so terribly wrong.

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8 comments

  1. Thank you for this article. As someone who has been severely suffering with anorexia for years, I couldn’t agree more. They manage to make it look more like a carnival than a deathbed.

  2. I agree with most of your post with the exception of the eating disorder stuff… I am in recover from anorexia myself and was hospitalized.. It was nothing like Emma’s hospital stay (I had a locked Ed unit), but I do have friends from residential treatment that were in hospitals that had no idea how to treat eating disorders and had similar experiences to Emma… And the stuff with her eating disorder… The care taking of others, hoarding food/cooking for others, fluid loading, etc are all symptoms of Eds that either I have exhibited or some close to me has… Very interesting so far…

    1. I agree her symptoms definitely exhibit that of an ED. I just felt it dangerous on a dramedy-soap-opera-for-teens type show to put some of that in, in such a light way. I’m curious to see how this storyline goes, & perhaps the things they’ve shown in light will eventually reveal the darkness behind them. I worry about someone (like me, when I was younger) watching and going oh, let me try that. I know it’s all over the internet, but it still worried me. I’d love to see mostly her recovery, as in therapy & fighting against the compulsions, learning coping skills etc.

      I’m sorry to hear about your friends’ experiences. That is awful. I was basing my knowledge of ED treatment from my own & that of friends (who were in ED specific, lock down type units). Really sad to know such lack of care & awareness exists. I hope your friends are able to get the proper help. Ugh, that really breaks me heart…

      Thank you so much for reading! I have to catch up on this week’s & I wonder how the storylines will all end up. I wish you luck in recovery. It isn’t easy, but it is possible. Take care of yourself. ♡

  3. Thank you for this article. I was so excited about this show, but I’m terribly disappointed. I’m a child life specialist and this show drives me crazy. It’s extremely inaccurate and glorifies being the hospital. Maybe I’m too sensitive because I work in a hospital but I don’t feel this show is doing anything positive. I keep waiting for someone to get an IV….anything!

  4. My theory for why Red Band does not show any of these patients in therapy is: The older hippie dude who lives on site is a psychiatrist, later to be revealed as the therapist. When his experimental “cover” is blown later in the series, it will result in drama and mistrust. dun, dun,da…

  5. AMEN!! I was wondering if I was the only one who was bothered by the kid with CF who is moving around like breathing isn’t an issue. (Skateboarding?! Really!?) And yeah, the chick with the heart issue is so not-likable that if she died, would anyone cry? The one person who liked her (her “lackey”) and wanted to be around her was shunned like an idiot.

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