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Based on Ryan McGarry’s documentary of the same name, Code Black — CBS’s new scripted medical drama from Michael Seitzman — takes place in the ER of an understaffed Los Angeles Hospital, where a lack of resources means almost constant chaos. It’s a good setup for a medical series that wants to be more about gritty realities than supply closet flirtations, although Code Black features both to mixed results.
The series boasts a number of excellent veteran actors, led by Marcia Gay Harden (Trophy Wife) as a maverick residency director — with a tragic past, of course — who rules with an iron fist. Though the high-profile (and handsome) Dr. Neal Hudson (Raza Jaffrey, who had a memorable arc in Homeland’s fifth season) may be the doctor patients want, “I’m the doctor they need,” Rorish tells him after the two butt heads over a matter of procedure. Luis Guzman (Narcos) also makes an appearance as a senior nurse, and elevates Code Black to something great when he and Harden share scenes. And Veep’s Kevin Dunn keeps watch over everyone with a staid bemusement, throwing some extremely subtle and dry humor into the episode’s otherwise dark proceedings.
The residents (played by Benjamin Hollingsworth, Bonnie Somerville, Melanie Chandra and Harry Ford) are largely broad character sketches, but that’s the problem with introducing such a huge cast all in a pilot episode. Smartly, Code Black chooses to focus the most on Harden, who carries the otherwise boilerplate pilot and makes some of the clunky dialogue handled by lesser cast members almost forgettable.
Code Black’s pilot is shot with muted colors that bring out the stark, sterile, metallic nature of the ER. It’s a drab place, as most ERs are, and the show’s commitment to gruesome realism will likely appeal to fans of CBS’s crime dramas, where bodies are often poked and prodded and exposed by medical examiners. But, Code Black’s pilot also has a problem with tone, as it’s a mishmash of serious ER chaos and manipulative sentimentality and melodrama, which feel forced. (The chaos though it does well; “code black” is a term that means there are too many patients and not enough resources — something that happens to most hospitals a few times a year, and to this one almost nightly).
But, some of those issues will likely start to smooth out once the characters start to have real personas and actual arcs. Code Black’s bigger problem will be distinguishing itself as must-see TV in a sea of other procedurals. This is a show that kicks off with a theoretical operation, employs the use of experimental medicine, and expects its doctors to have a working knowledge of rare Norwegian genetic maladies. But even all of that may not be enough to make viewers take notice (though for die-hard medical procedural fans, it hits all of the right notes).
Code Black does do a great job capturing the stress and misery of an ER experience, with its drab surroundings mixed with a chaotic tempo for some and interminable waiting for others. But the realness of that experience is not necessarily one that may lure viewers to want to spend more time there than is strictly necessary.
Rating: ★★ Fair for most, ★★★ Good for medical procedural fans
Code Black premieres Wednesday, September 30th at 10 p.m. on CBS