The Mysteries of Laura & The Red Band Society

Posted on September 18, 2014

Debra Messing in NBC’s “The Mysteries of Laura and “Octavia Spencer in FOX’s “The Red Band Society” 


Two new “name” actress-centered shows debuted last night and they both suffer from the same problem; a seemingly built in fear of letting their leads stretch their limbs a little bit and do what they do best. Worse, both shows feel almost alarmingly retrograde at times, like we were watching something from the NBC fall lineup of 1988 or something.

The Red Band Society stars Oscar winner Octavia Spencer as a nurse in a pediatric long-term care ward, but perhaps “stars” is overselling it. She’s certainly been marketed as the star of this show, but it turns out she’s merely a slightly central player in an ensemble cast. Which we suppose would be fine, except she’s not at the center of the show at all. This isn’t a show about a sassy black nurse – because yes, that is exactly what her character is. We suppose we (and she) should be grateful she’s not playing a stern black lady judge or an attitudinal black lady clerk at the DMV (But don’t worry, there’s also a bitchy blonde cheerleader and a beautiful square-jawed white doctor to round out the tired old tropes). No it’s a show about teenagers in a pediatric ward. Dreamy, quirky teenagers who drop witty bon mots every time they open their mouths, when they’re not dropping intensely poignant truth bombs about the fragility of life, that is. We heard a lot of pre-show buzz comparing it (in a bad way) to Glee and we have to admit, the comparison’s a little dead on.

It’s one thing to set your high school musical show in something of a fantasy setting that only marginally resembles the average high school. Glee was always about making a bold play to go past realism and find some sort of truth in fantasy and projection. The relatively unrelatable setting (and characters) were built into the DNA of the show from the beginning. It worked (for a time) for two reasons: because the teenagers in the audience were hungry for a fantasy version of high school that actually addressed some of the real concerns of modern teenagers and the adults in the audience loved hearing classic rock and pop tunes resung by a group of non-threatening actors standing in for real teenagers. But when your setting is a hospital and your main characters are all young people with extremely serious and life threatening health issues (in no particular order: cancer, cancer, heart transplant, cystic fibrosis, eating disorder, coma), just how far do you think you can take the fantasy setting before it snaps in half? Because anyone who’s even visited a hospital will instantly realize that the hospital on this show looks and feels absolutely nothing like a real one. This is a magic hospital where magic things happen and coma patients can talk to anyone else near them who’s unconscious.

But this isn’t a show for people who pay their own insurance bills and make their own doctor’s appointments. This is clearly a show for people who have those things taken care of for them – teenagers – and subsequently, have no idea how ludicrous it is that a couple of teenage cancer patients can throw an impromptu party on the hospital’s helipad or that there’s a pot-smoking ex-hippie who “helped organize Woodstock at the age of 16” living in some sort of penthouse? In a hospital? And he’s mentoring them all or something? This is a show where the art director needed to make the teenage patients’ rooms look youthful and personalized so they… nailed vinyl records to the walls and ceiling. Of a hospital room. It’s like no one involved in this show is interested in depicting an actual healthcare setting or actual 2014 teenagers.

Just about the only bright spot in the whole production is Octavia herself, which is a shame, because she’s clearly not the focus. The whole thing strikes us as oddly unbalanced, as if the show doesn’t know who it wants to appeal to. The teen characters and the fantasy setting make it seem like they’re going for a younger audience, but the “star” of the show is an Oscar-winning actress from a prestige film that was definitely marketed toward adults. It’s like casting Adrien Brody as Mr. Schuester on Glee. You can do it, but why would you?

But if The Red Band Society felt strangely outmoded in its style, The Mysteries of Laura lands like a videocassette that just dropped out of the sky from a time portal. Debra Messing plays a New York City detective – who’s also a mom! How does she do it? How does she do it? Ladies, can you have it all? Here to answer this question from 25 years ago is Debra as a tough-as-nails detective with two unruly twin boys and (of course) a roguishly handsome ex-husband – who is also her boss! Hilarity ensues this fall on NBC! It’s Cagney + Lacey, IN ONE CHARACTER!

Ugh. Sometimes we wonder how these things get out of the planning stages.

Look, it could be fun. It’s essentially a comedic cop show, which is actually a pretty good fit for Messing. She gets to play a sharp New York career woman (her stock character) who gets herself into wacky situations and has a way with a one-liner (her stock in trade). And unlike most cop shows set in NYC, this one is actually shot there, so we don’t get any annoyingly Canadian backdrops trying to pass itself off as Brooklyn. But Messing needs to find a method of line delivery that doesn’t immediately call to mind Grace Adler. We realize that’s a tall order, since it’s the same actress playing comedic NYC career women on a network TV show, so there’s bound to be some repetition in the performance, but every single joke (and to be fair, there were some funny moments) landed exactly like a Will & Grace moment. We kept expecting Megan Mullally to totter in at any second and say something bitchy about her outfit. Which, by the way, should never have happened. That lawn-green turtleneck she wore through half the episode? Ooof. Honey, no.

There’s also this odd (in the sense that it was so unexpected and somewhat off-model for Messing) reliance on the character’s looks. In one scene, she gets to fluff up her hair and act like a ditz who left her panties in a car she’s trying to break into, and in another scene, she strips down, Charlie’s Angel’s-style, into a very revealing bathing suit to go undercover in a spa. So essentially, we have a female detective character who’s being defined – TOTALLY and one hundred percent defined – by her looks and her motherhood. And frankly, neither works particularly well for Messing as an actress. She’s at her best when she’s wisecracking her way through a bad situation; not when she’s giggling and flipping her hair or awkwardly walking through a scene in a high-cut bathing suit and heels, as if she was in a pageant or something. Both the “How can a MOM have JOB?!?!?” framing and the rather quick and easy way the character lapses into faux bimbo-ism  are so weirdly old-fashioned that it’s really jarring. It turns out, you really can’t effectively mash up Charlie’s Angels and Cagney & Lacey into one show in 2014. Messing is as charming as ever and the show does have possibilities (if only for the odd blend of comedy + mystery), but it needs to decide if it’s a campy, sexy detective show or a gritty, cynical one. You can’t do both at the same time.





[Photo Credit: FOX, NBC]

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