One episode was provided prior to broadcast.
As far as major networks go, CBS isn’t exactly known for its devotion to innovation. From its laugh-track-heavy, half-hour comedies (The Big Bang Theory, Mike & Molly) to its brand-name procedurals (NCIS and its spinoffs, Criminal Minds, CSI: Cyber), the channel has a business model that, conventional and conservative as it may be, runs reliably as a decade-old, well-maintained Toyota Corolla.
Code Black, a “new” medical drama only distinguished from the rest of the pack by its pervasive gloom, is CBS’ answer to Grey’s Anatomy, a ham-fisted attempt to snatch up the same audiences that have propelled ER-set procedurals to the threshold of being TV clichés. It’s traditional and damnably easy to swallow, in a very CBS way.
Set in the “busiest emergency room in the world,” Code Black (so named for the level at which the ER is filled with so many patients that there aren’t enough resources to treat them all at once) is all about the doctors, nurses and medical residents constantly racing against time to bring patients back from the brink of death.
Leading the charge is Dr. Rorish (Marcia Gay Harden), a hardened residency director whose alleged recklessness and severity is really just her way of saying she cares too much about the safety of her patients to tolerate silly distractions like social etiquette and rule-following. A nurse who refers to himself as “Mama” (Luis Guzman) is right by her side, barking orders and guiding a flock of new medical residents into the jaws of a germaphobe’s hell.
And, of course, there’s a counterbalance in a devoted doctor (Raza Jaffrey) who is a stickler for the rules and doesn’t take too kindly to what he sees as needless corner-cutting. And a wiser, older doctor (William Allen Young) who never says anything that couldn’t have been ripped off a fortune cookie. And a fresher-faced resident (Bonnie Somerville) with a tragic past. And even a no-bullshit ER chief (Kevin Dunn) who pops in and out on occasion. Have no fears, ER fans – every living, breathing staple of the genre is presented and/or accounted for.
Chaos is commonplace in this particular ER – and the show tries to communicate that fact through plenty of fast cuts, urgently delivered medical jargon, suspenseful music and beeping heart monitors. Code Black so badly wants to substitute Grey‘s romantic treacle with real-world adrenaline, and it never stops trying to remind you of that, whether with overly frantic pacing or long shots of dark blood seeping out across a cold tile floor. Rorish even gets a dramatic, stethoscope-carrying Batman moment, telling Jaffrey’s doc in no uncertain terms that, while he might be the kind, smiling doctor patients want, “I’m the doctor they need.”
The reason it doesn’t work is that for every shot imparting the gritty realism of Code Black‘s world comes an absolute howler of a line or choreographed emotional beat that throws the series squarely back into trope territory. For a supposedly realistic show about the medical profession, there are a lot of “eureka” moments wherein the answer to a seemingly impossible dilemma is suggested in a random, unrelated conversation. And for a supposedly overworked, understaffed emergency room, the assorted docs certainly find a fair amount of time to listen to the sounds of a newborn wailing then pat themselves on the back while pointing out “what it’s all about.” Code Black is at war with itself, trying to sell its setting’s jagged edges even as it files them down to nothing.
The performers are all solid enough, especially Gay Harden, who’s thoroughly excellent at playing the tenacious, abrasive brainiac these kinds of shows often revolve around. Her character still bears the emotional scars of some past trauma, and we learn quickly that she’s been investigated (and “exonerated,” stresses the ER chief) for possible misconduct multiple times. Yet even if Code Black takes its sweet time in getting under Rorish’s skin, she’s entertaining enough to watch running around, tackling time-sensitive patients and excoriating the green-around-the-gills residents that it doesn’t matter all that much.
Whether viewers will even give Code Black a chance to more completely characterize its heroes is another question entirely. The pilot, for all its commotion and confusion, lacks any sense of identity – it’s a hour packed with incident but devoid of basic personality (which might be one reason CBS brass are so high on it – comparisons to ER, The Night Shift, St. Elsewhere and countless other medical dramas seem inevitable given how much of their DNA is interwoven in place of anything distinctive). And without anything for audiences to really prize it for, Code Black just kind of lies there on the screen. Its drama won’t take your breath away or speed up your heartbeat, but its dialogue is sure to get your eyes rolling, and while that’s not exactly a death knell for any show, it’s also far from a good first diagnosis.
Code Black is at war with itself, trying to sell its setting's realistically jagged edges even as it files them down to nothing.