Despite the appealing fast pace and some solid performances, CBS' new drama "Code Black" is a medical procedural that sacrifices a complex look at the overburdened health-care system for simplistic emotional ploys.
Based on a documentary of the same name, the title of the series comes from a designation that indicates when patients in the emergency room outnumber the resources it has to treat them. As the show begins, we are told that in Angels Memorial Hospital in Los Angeles, code black happens 300 times per year. In the average ER, it happens five times per year.
Dealing with the chaos in the country's busiest ER is a staff including four doctors beginning their residency. Leading them is Dr. Leanne Rorish (Marcia Gay Harden), assisted by senior ER nurse Jesse (Luis Guzman). Leanne was a mentor to Dr. Hudson (Raza Jaffrey) but after a traumatic event in her life, she has become reckless. We know this because Dr. Hudson takes almost every opportunity when the two share the screen to question Dr. Rorish's actions. Reminding us of a character's traits is the show's specialty it seems, as we are told repeatedly that Angus (Harry M. Ford) is the resident who lacks confidence and Mario (Benjamin Hollingsworth) is the one with a chip on his shoulder. Christa (Bonnie Somerville) is the older one and Malaya (Melanie Chandra) is the smart one who whispers the answers to Angus whenever his insecurities threaten to potentially kill a patient. As characters, the residents suffer from a fatal condition called "being forgettable."
Dr. Rorish however, is memorable thanks to a solid performance from Harden. Despite being given lines like this: "Your instinct has to be sharper than your scalpel and faster than any machine," she is able to create an impressive, authoritative character who you want to get to know better. Her scenes with Guzman are a highlight of the show.
"Life is measured here in split seconds," says Dr. Rorish to her new residents as she blows into the ER like a hurricane. But, the verbal clue to the show's pace is hardly needed. Code black scenes are bloody, confronting, loud and fast. In one that gives new meaning to multi-tasking, Dr. Rorish takes a minute before drilling into a patient's skull (who is about to die if she doesn't Do. Something. Fast.) to talk Christa through a caesarian section over the phone. Christa, in a moment of brilliance, saved a pregnant woman the ER had earlier kicked to the curb and is now stuck in an ambulance with her going nowhere in traffic. Christa also has to Do. Something. Fast. which she does with Dr. Rorish's help. Both patients have a happy ending. The emotional payoff here is more eye-rolling than heart-swelling but the code black scenes are the reward for sitting through the cheap feel-good moments. Their pace is relentless in the best way possible.
But then, people stop in hallways to have a simplistic chat about balancing their ideals with the reality of the healthcare system and any magic the code black scenes created disappears. What's left is a disappointing medical show that could have been so much more.
"Code Black" is on Wednesday at 10 p.m. EDT on CBS.
Melissa Crawley is the author of "Mr. Sorkin Goes to Washington: Shaping the President on Television's 'The West Wing.'" She has a Ph.D. in media studies and is a member of the Television Critics Association. To comment on Stay Tuned, email her at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter at @MelissaCrawley.