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Allowances must be made for and by fans of the medical procedural.
While our current Golden Age of TV has been a boon for lovers of superheroes, zombies and glowering male antiheroes, doc drama devotees have often had to make do with shows like Three Rivers, Black Box, Monday Mornings, 3 Lbs, The Night Shift and Emily Owen, MD. And if you can identify more than three of those shows, your brother-in-law probably works as a tech advisor or else you’ve been truly desperate for any manna in the wilderness.
So when something like CBS’ Code Black makes it to air, there is an audience that will grasp at it like it’s the next ER, because it has a measure of grit and fetishized authenticity and it ends with one of the most manipulative emotional sucker-punches imaginable. Chip away the documentary-flavored coating and you have a by-the-numbers medical engine supported by a few very fine performances. You’ll probably feel something by the end of the Code Black pilot, but the feeling is more likely to be exhaustion or annoyance than anything more cathartic.
Adapted by Michael Seitzman from the documentary by Ryan McGarry, Code Black is set in Angels Memorial Hospital in Los Angeles. Opening text tells us that a code black occurs when there’s “an influx of patients so great, there aren’t enough resources to treat them” and that while the average ER goes into code black five times per year, Angels Memorial hits that level 300 times per year.
Lest that’s insufficient acclimation — and it’s not like this is a condition we haven’t seen on TV before, we just didn’t know it had a fancy name — Code Black is a high school show masquerading as a medical drama, with Luis Guzmán‘s Jesse, the senior ER nurse, putting a group of four new first-year residents through their paces, pointing out areas of significance, offering wisdom like “People come here for one reason and one reason only, to get one last miracle” and coming just short of telling them which part of the lunchroom is set aside for the jocks and which part is the domain of the theater kids.
The opening of Code Black is about situating the viewer, but even more than exposition, it’s about preparation for urgency, because Marcia Gay Harden‘s Dr. Leanne Rorish roars in and starts talking about all of the time that nobody has. “Life is measured here in split seconds. Hesitate and people die,” she says, but as if that isn’t enough, at least half of Rorish’s early dialogue involves shaming her residents for sluggish patient wait-times or making it clear that whatever scheduling estimates she receives allot more time than is actually available.
Rorish is anxious so that when things on Code Black move into the perilous title condition, viewers have been well and truly warned. With pilot director David Semel leading the way, it’s here that Code Black shines. From the crack of realigned bones to the florid spatter of arterial blood to the jittery whoosh of a hand-held camera from the face of one sweaty, intense doctor to the next, Code Black plays the documentary-style game with nausea-inducing aplomb, ratcheting up the tension effectively enough that you’ll only barely be irked that each new case into the ER is more sentimental than the last — orphaned girl with brain-dead father into aging man experiencing mental troubles to the chagrin of his wife into ailing pregnant woman — and that very little medicine is involved anywhere. Code Black is about people wailing, doctors shouting, the greenish color palette, the over-saturated light sources, the jarring edits and the cut-aways to piles of fluid-drenched bandages. It’s about characters asserting that time is running out seconds before they pause in the hallway to debate key issues of palliative care and share biographical data letting us know that Dr. Rorish used to be a mentor to Raza Jaffrey‘s Dr. Hudson, but something horrible happened and now “she’s become more dangerous and reckless.”
The limitedly-descript (better than nondescript) residents also are free to pause amidst the chaos to underline their character traits. Angus (Harry M. Ford) is a hospital legacy and lacks confidence over and over. Christa (Bonnie Somerville) is older than your typical resident, which has to be repeated over and over because otherwise you’d never notice. Mario (Benjamin Hollingsworth) is insufferable, which probably shouldn’t have been emphasized over and over. And Malaya (Melanie Chandra) is capable, but used mostly as a crutch for Angus. None of the residents, characters or performances offers a reason to watch Code Black.
Fortunately, Harden is fantastic. Rorish keeps pontificating and doing risky things and nobody has really decided what her character is, but Harden never sacrifices her air of authority and she makes the erratic script details come together in a complicated portrait. She’s at her best in a couple moments opposite Guzmán, who dominates those opening moments, but then is too frequently absent in the pilot’s second half. Joining the character actor cadre that keeps Code Black afloat is Kevin Dunn, who plays the director of the ER, whose main purpose is to notice when doctors are spending more time talking than operating and snapping them to attention with sarcasm. Dunn is saddled with the cumbersome line “We are officially in Code Black, God help us,” but he sounds embarrassed to be delivering it, which I appreciated. This is a CBS show, so it isn’t surprising that it’s better at Wily Veterans Just Doing Their Jobs than Flirty Residents Learning Life Lessons, which would be the ABC version of the show.
That less effective ABC show keeps intruding into the proficient documentary-style CBS procedural in annoying ways unless you buy into their mawkishness. It’s an ER show that stages a nonsensical freeway surgery just for high stakes kicks. It’s a pilot trying to introduce a 10-person ensemble, but if you’re going to cry during the pilot, it’ll be at a rigged scene between two guest characters you’ll never see again. It’s a show that wants to be praised for its realism that can’t avoid cheating to yank your strings.
The mismatched combination renders Code Black only a step above generic, but for fans of the medical genre, that’s all your prescription plan will cover this fall.
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