Before we get into Code Black, a quick rundown of what’s already being covered by recent medical dramas. There’s the longtime fave Grey’s Anatomy, sexy and flashy and never-ending. There’s the clichéd The Night Shift, which revolves around attractive war veterans and, well, the night shift. And in November, Chicago Med will arrive, with its familiar Dick Wolf formula that will satisfy Chicago P.D. and Chicago Fire fans.
What’s missing is a grittier drama that accurately depicts what a hospital is really like, and if there’s one show with the potential to fill that void, it’s Code Black. But judging from the premiere, it seems to have varying degrees of success with that task.
Code Black is inspired by the 2013 documentary of the same name, which is based off Los Angeles County + USC Medical Center, one of the busiest ERs in the country. In the show, it’s Angels Memorial Hospital, and right from the start, the intro tells viewers to expect a fast-paced and intense episode: Code black is when there aren’t enough resources to treat the patients, and Angels Memorial is in code black 300 times a year.
We meet senior ER nurse Jesse Salander (Luis Guzman), who’s giving the four new residents the rundown of the ER in a way that makes it impossible not to compare it to Dr. Bailey’s intro from the Grey’s Anatomy premiere. Before we even see the opening credits we hear the clichés of the medical world: “People come here for one reason and one reason only. To get one last miracle”; “Life is measured here in split seconds. Hesitate and people die”; “We’re going to kill him to save him.”
We meet the first-year residents, and while it may take a while to remember their names — Malaya, Angus, Mario, and Christa — they’re familiar. The eager-to-work overachiever, the bumbling and overwhelmed newbie, the slightly douche-y attractive guy, and the one who screws up but redeems herself in the end.
We meet Dr. Leanne Rorish (Marcia Gay Harden), the no BS ER residency director who’s talented, intimidating, and reckless. When a man comes in with a gushing gunshot wound to the neck, she orders an experimental procedure to treat him, much to the disapproval of play-by-the-rules Dr. Neal Hudson. But Dr. Rorish doesn’t care, saying, “You’re the doctor they want. I’m the doctor they need.”
The reason for her hardened disposition starts to become clear when Neal and ER director Mark Taylor (who is just Kevin Dunn’s watered-down portrayal of his Veep character in a hospital setting) allude to a mysterious accident she experienced three years ago. Furthermore, Leanne acts uncomfortable around a young girl whose father dies in the ER. There’s no definite answer as to what the accident was, but she later tells Christa (Bonnie Somerville) that she’s lost everyone in her life.
The episode has what you’d expect from a typical medical drama pilot. The green residents are trying to navigate the intensity of real life-or-death situations, the doctors are butting heads over professional opinions, and every now and then there’s some comic relief to prevent the show from becoming too depressing. But it’s more fast-paced and grittier than what we’ve previously seen. Seven ER cases are crammed into one episode, the patients lost in a sea of scrambling doctors and nurses in an unglamorous setting. No shiny equipment or nice views here. The downside is the show seems to be overcompensating for the bleakness by laying on the slow-mo, piano scores, and bright lights. When there’s this much blood and death and tears, you have to milk every moment of sentimentality, and that also means ending the episode with a miracle birth.
The question remains if the show will sustain this pace and level of intensity for the rest of the season, and if so, how to do it without making it tiresome. There won’t be any buzzy watercooler moments from Code Black, but hopefully the characters will soon break out of their conventional roles and we’ll at least have something to root for.
Code Black airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET on CBS.