“Red Band Society,” a new drama about very ill, very young patients at a teaching hospital which premiered on Fox last night, is a strange beast. It is narrated by a precocious coma patient and set in what Slate television critic Willa Paskin describes as “the swankiest hospital that has ever existed…which includes Danish modern furniture in at least one room and very sick people who do not look poorly at all.”
And most of all, it seems to be set in a fantasyland where everyone — even kids who sneak over the border between Mexico and the United States without their parents — can have as much health care as they want, any time they want it, without a worry in the world about how it will get paid for.
When I asked “Red Band Society” creator Margaret Nagle about this quirk of the show at the Television Critics Association press tour in July, her response struck me as a touch optimistic.
“One of my cousins who is at Scripps in San Diego, they have kids come over the border all the time. They actually do at UCLA too. And they at the hospital are required to take care of that patient as long as possible,” she told me. “This is a teaching hospital. So, like, UCLA, when this happens, and it happens all the time, they’ll take that patient on because they’re a teaching hospital and they can cover the insurance because they can try a drug potentially on them. They can bring them in and use them to teach other people, which is what’s going to happen in this situation.”
The benefits of treating patients with rare diseases might cover some of the characters’ situations on “Red Band Society.” But I am not sure this is a plausible explanation for all of them.
Emma (Ciara Bravo) is a member of the titular society because she is undergoing long-term hospitalization to treat her anorexia. In 2010, the New York Times reported that in-patient treatment for eating disorders might run to $30,000 a month, and insurance coverage can be a challenge. The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Assorted Disorders has an entire section on its website on what to do if a health insurance company denies coverage for any eating disorder-related treatment. And while the Affordable Care Act was intended to expand mental health coverage, the benchmarks it set up for states to follow do not necessarily include coverage of treatment for eating disorders.
If Emma’s family is wealthy enough to cover perpetual in-patient care for her, or if her parents won a battle with her insurer that allows her to stay in the hospital indefinitely, those are fine explanations for how the cost of her care is being covered. “Red Band Society” would do better to work those details into the show than to hand-wave at them, though. Money may not be a comfortable subject, but in this case, it is a quick way to help us understand more about Emma and her family (and maybe the source of that Danish modern furniture).
“Red Band Society” does better in its pilot episode with Kara (Zoe Levin), an obnoxious cheerleader who turns out to have an enlarged heart after she collapses during practice. When traces of a wide array of substances turn up in her bloodwork, she and her parents learn that her past behavior could exclude her from a transplant.
“Oh, the heart thing is a big thing,” Nagel said. “There are not enough hearts to go around. So they have to screen you, and their criteria is are you going to make the most of your life with that new heart. And if you don’t value your life, you’re not going to get a heart and you have to go to the heart board. You have to be screened. Sometimes you have to go back two, three, four times.”
Executive producer Justin Falvey promised the crowd of critics that the team of medical consultants for “Red Band Society” would help keep the show in “a realistic and grounded place,” and that “certainly we’ll address some of these questions down the road.” I hope that proves true. Taking on insurance issues and medical boards would be a great way for the show to generate real stakes and drama, rather than, as Vulture’s Margaret Lyons put it, “[making] hospital stays seem like a spread in an Urban Outfitters catalogue.”