'The Code': TV Review

Marines first. Lawyers second. Entertaining TV a bit further down the list.
4/9/2019

CBS' latest thoroughly average procedural is like 'A Few Good Men' without the charismatic stars and dialogue, or like 'JAG' without the brand equity.

CBS is not opposed to directly adapting movies as TV shows that absolutely nobody wanted. Need I remind you that Rush Hour and Training Day were both very recent and very short-lived series on CBS and that Beverly Hills Cop very nearly became one?

It's much smarter to do the near-beer or impossible-burger form of adapting; a certain audience will find comfort in what you're doing, but you won't have to face the pressure of actual adaptation.

CBS' new drama The Code is a seitan adaptation of A Few Good Men, an answer for viewers who craved a version of that film with all of the Uniform Code of Justice references and saluting, but very little of the clever dialogue or charismatic star performances. It's a lot of nonpartisan, flag-waving courtroom antics that become more entertaining if you periodically interrupt the proceedings to yell, "Did you order the Code Red?" and otherwise is no better or worse than forgettable.

The Code is set out of the Judge Advocate General Headquarters in Quantico, where prosecutors, defense lawyers and investigators work out of the same general offices and remain Marines, first and foremost. Our ostensible pseudo-hero is Captain John "Abe" Abraham (Luke Mitchell), prosecutor and latest in a family lineage of storied Marines. He works with fact-spewing Major Trey Ferry (Ato Essandoh) and  flirts and butts heads with Captain Maya Dobbins (Anna Wood) for the defense. They all serve under Colonel Glenn Turnbull (Dana Delany).

You could have renamed Dana Delany's character "JoAnne Galloway" and dropped an occasional Daniel Kaffee reference and actually called the series A Few Good Men. The three episodes I've watched all tend toward a similar "Enlisted Marines are fundamentally good and well-meaning, undone only by the rare commanding officer who goes overboard in assessing their duty" formula straight out of the Aaron Sorkin playbook, with Mark Deklin aggressively flaring his nostrils on the witness stand in the pilot in what is clearly intended as a one-off Jack Nicholson role. Money, I suspect, would be the hold-up in this appropriation of a beloved title.

I'm more surprised that creators Craig Sweeny and Craig Turk weren't asked to develop The Code as an NCIS spinoff, taking the franchise back to its JAG roots. One of the episodes sent to critics finds Abe investigating a case that directly involves NCIS, but not an NCIS character from within the CBS universe.

Instead, The Code is left to simply feel like a CBS procedural in the broadest of strokes, which it absolutely does, right down to the casting of Hamilton veteran Phillipa Soo in a regular role as a lieutenant named Harper Li — yes, there are To Kill a Mockingbird jokes — and Aaron Tveit as Maya's politician brother, because there's nothing CBS procedurals enjoy quite as much as wasting Broadway stars in roles that don't let them sing.

The characters operate in fairly generic offices and courtrooms and travel to fairly generic war zones. The show sometimes tackles interesting topics through a military prism, including the rise of traumatic brain injuries among soldiers, only to have to approach those topics in a way too hasty and too perfunctory to be provocative. When these lawyers handle cases involving politicians, they go out of their way to never say "Democrat" or "Republican," because the network's dramas generally exist in a slightly right-of-center fantasy land that rarely gets more extreme than that except in bizarrely misguided instances like the reactionary tripe that was Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders. CBS' Hippocratic Oath begins with "First, do no offense."

It's also within the CBS brand to cast blandly at the top and interestingly as you get deeper. Even though his character is introduced in the pilot dealing with the murder of his mentor, Mitchell (The Tomorrow People) has a dull, pretty character more prone to smirking and quipping than emotional grandstanding, though this also protects the actor from a native Australian accent that has always come out of him in heightened moments. His best scenes come with Raffi Barsoumian as a bantering paralegal, rather than with Wood, as the show's preferred scene partner, or Essandoh, whose intelligence and intensity are the stuff of a better show.

Delany, no stranger to acting in uniform, is badly underused in the first couple episodes sent to critics before finally getting a meaningful subplot in the third, which is technically the fifth episode to air, which lets you know how long you'll have to wait before one of the great TV stars of our age gets half as much to do as her less interesting co-stars.

Count me in for a version of The Code in which Colonel Turnbull is actually the main character, Essandoh plays her chief attache and Soo's character goes out and sings karaoke as part of every episode. The Code is not that series. It also isn't nearly as lively and fun as you might hope for from a reteaming of Sweeny and director Marc Webb, who also collaborated on Limitless, an above-average take on the CBS procedural formula and the best-case scenario for CBS latching onto a movie. The Code is something resolutely more average.

Cast: Luke Mitchell, Anna Wood, Ato Essandoh, Phillipa Soo, Dana Delany, Raffi Barsoumian

Creators: Craig Sweeny and Craig Turk

Special premiere Tuesday, April 9. Airs Mondays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on CBS starting April 15.