Alex Martinez/FOX
Tom Gliatto
September 17, 2014 07:30 PM

“Imagine how hard it is to make friends in a coma. I’m at a serious disadvantage here.”

On the premiere episode of FOX’s excellent new comedy-drama Red Band Society, those words are spoken in voiceover by 12-year-old Charlie (Griffin Gluck). Eyes closed to the world, but ears able to take in everything going on around him, Charlie is unconscious in a hospital ward for children and teenagers.

Charlie is the show’s narrator, and he can make his presence felt, one way or the other. When he’s forced to share his room with a cheerleader who smokes, he retaliates with flatulence. When the cheerleader has an out-of-body experience during an emergency, he pops into her vision, passes on a few pointers about hospital life and gives her a message to pass onto his father.

Red Band Society, which could turn out to be one of the best new shows of the fall, is like that, constantly catching you unexpectedly. A show about young people dealing with terrible illnesses (cancer, failing hearts, eating disorders) could have us weeping nonstop without even having to try – it could go for broke either with reminders of early death or life-affirming lessons about the enduring human spirit.

Wisely, this show is chiefly about teenagers.

It’s about young patients trying to grow up, and enjoy growing up, even while circumstances and their own bodies have formed the opposite idea. They seek out new friendships, they sort-of date, they hang out, they crave pizza and want to go on beer runs. They lounge around in one another’s rooms. They are popular, or not.

They are also rushed to surgery. They have limbs amputated. They are put on the list for organ donors.

Red Band Society’s humanity lies for the most part in its loose, skeptical humor – the humor of the patients. The kids are underdogs both by fact of being sick and simply by being kids, and they know it. As long as they breathe in and out, they can’t help expressing that.

If Ryan Murphy, creator of Glee, collaborated with Dr. Oliver Sacks, neurologist and author of so many compassionate bestsellers about illness, this would be their show.

Red Band Society premieres Wednesday on FOXat 9 p.m. ET.

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