One of the trickier balancing acts of the season is being performed by Fox's Red Band Society (Wednesday, 9/8c), which aims to be a feel-good show about kids who feel bad. As in indefinite-hospital-stay bad. Amputation bad. Eating disorder, heart disease and cancer bad.
And, in what may be a deal-breaker for some, coma bad. Because in a fall season that's overly fond of the voice-over device, this show is actually narrated by a kid in a coma. "Deal with it," says young Charlie (Griffin Gluck) in his overly precious introduction. Despite his infirm situation, Charlie is possibly the most talkative patient on Ocean Park Hospital's pediatric ward. He's given to so many platitudes — "The most important part of you that needs to survive is you" — that you might wonder if, when he wakens, he might choose greeting cards as a career path. The fault in Red Band Society isn't in the stars, but in the over-writing.
The better parts of Red Band veer from Hallmark sentiments to embrace more of a John Hughes tone, suggesting that gallows humor, irreverent banter with the dedicated staff (including the invaluable Octavia Spencer, as the "raging bitch" with a heart of mush Nurse Jackson, and Dave Annable as a heartthrob surgeon) and plucky teen romances and bromances may be more appropriate defense mechanisms against illness. The show benefits from an appealing cast of fresh faces who, with the help of a few choice adults, lift this Society above its many mawkish moments — another sample, or sampler: "Life is full of black holes, and the only person who can pull you out is you") — to generate one of the more offbeat youthquakes since the early days of Glee.
While there are many moments when I found myself siding with the hateful mean-girl cheerleader (Zoe Levin) who barks to her loquacious frenemies, "Stop with the word vomit!" the show also made me reflect on another Fox classic, a more assured exercise in poignant uplift: the iconic mid-'90s tear-jerker Party of Five. This has a ways to go to get to that level, but the initial diagnosis of "potential cult favorite" is, for now, positive. The real test results will come in the next few episodes.
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BOOK 'EM, MOMMY: Having survived all the snark about scarves (and Leo!) during her troubled tenure on Smash, Debra Messing now presides over NBC's annoyingly cutesy fallen soufflé The Mysteries of Laura like a self-deprecating good sport once again saddled with unfortunate material. Laura tries very tryingly to be both a wacky domestic comedy and a jokey, hokey whodunit, pushing for laughs with depressingly cheesy results. It's two bad shows in one and feels like a USA Network castoff. (Laura gets a solid promotional boost with a "sneak preview" airing at 10/9c following the America's Got Talent finale, but will have to sink or swim next Wednesday in its regular 8/7c time period.)
There's no denying Messing's star presence, but a scene in which she's chewing out her estranged hubby (Josh Lucas) on the phone while wearing Spanx is beneath her, and us, in its clichéd, condescending notion of the supposedly hilarious situation of a single working mom. But it's par for the course (or is that coarse?) in this clumsy adaptation of a Spanish series about one tough mama of a New York City detective who's a hapless pushover when it comes to disciplining her horrifically bratty twin preschooler sons. This is the kind of show Will and Grace would have turned off before the first commercial break.
FEAR ITSELF: If consuming all 14 hours of Ken Burns' majestic The Roosevelts: An Intimate History on PBS this week feels like too much of a good thing, consider watching the documentary series' fourth and arguably most compelling chapter, "The Storm" (8/7c, check tvguide.com listings). It movingly chronicles Franklin Delano Roosevelt's battle with polio, which he suddenly contracted at the age of 39, immobilizing a supremely active man just as he was entering the stage of national politics. Series writer Geoffrey C. Ward, also a polio survivor, speaks eloquently of FDR's terror and helplessness, and also his determination to absorb, if not conquer, this new demon. "Just as the irons were clapped on his legs, the steel entered his soul," says commentator George Will. Fellow sufferers who got to know FDR during his rehabilitation in Warm Springs, Georgia, remember "Rosie" as an unself-conscious "laughing giant" who inspired them all to carry on. The empathy he developed there for people struggling against fierce odds — this happened, after all, during the Great Depression — would define his presidency, which he assumed in 1933 with the inaugural speech including the immortal phrase, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself."