'Code Black' EPs on Lack of Medical Dramas, Adding Authenticity

"I think people get afraid to tackle something that’s been done before," EP Michael Seitzman said at TCA on Monday.
Courtesy of CBS

Code Black is one of several new medical dramas coming to TV this fall (see: Chicago Med, Heartbreaker). But in the wake of stellar small-screen success stories like ER and Grey's Anatomy, why have there been so few new variations on the genre in recent years?

"I think people get afraid to tackle something that’s been done before," said executive producer Michael Seitzman at the Television Critics Association summer press tour Monday. 

Seitzman in particular had an entirely different reason to be hesitant: his large family full of doctors and nurses. "It was so familiar to me," he said "They say write what you know, but sometimes you know something so well, you don’t want to go near it."

But lo and behold, Seitzman is the mastermind behind CBS' new medical drama Code Black. Based on the feature documentary produced and directed by Ryan McGarry, the medical drama is set in the busiest and most notorious ER in the nation, where the staff confronts a broken system in order to protect their ideals and the patients who need them the most. Based on the LAC+USC Medical Center, which serves 30 million patients, Code Black refers to the point where the influx of patients overwhelms the hospital staff.

"Right now, there's a code black every episode and that really mirrors the real life we experience," said Seitzman. "They can't turn away ambulance traffic. They can't turn away anybody."

McGarry, who also exec produces the series, stresses it's about more than the cases. "It is not the medicine," he said. "It is the amazing amount of intimacy and human drama that is involved."

The series takes several pages from the documentary, such as the lack of flattering lighting and the camera movement that puts viewers up close and personal during the procedures. "It's real, it's raw and the amount of knowledge that they want us to acquire so that it feels second nature so that it feels authentic, is a lot," said star Marcia Gay Harden. "At the end of the day, Michael has given us a show that’s not snarky.… It's real. It's gritty."

In addition to the 40,000-square-foot hospital built on the Disney lot, the approximately 600 extras per episode and the 30 trained nurses who serve as background actors — complete with SAG cards and speaking lines — what might be most impressive is the training the cast endured. Besides getting a glossary of terms to know and shadowing at emergency rooms, "they said to us, ‘We want to make sure there are four procedures anyone can do anytime...eyes closed," said Harden.

Added star Luis Guzman: “I’ve been doing this for a long time but this show is different in that in this show you’re showing up to do a real shift."

The producers also "took great pains" to remove forward-thinking and expensive technology such as touch screens. "A lot of medical shows have a tendency to want to be the future of medicine," said Seitzman. "It kept me at arm's length and I wanted to be right up inside the story.

"By the end of an hour of watching it, you should feel like you had a real experience."

Code Black premieres Wednesday, Sept. 30, at 10 p.m. on CBS.