Roush Review: In Code Black, It's Back to the ER

Matt Roush
Code Black
Neil Jacobs/CBS

In this season of the reboot and remake, it's understandable that anyone tuning into Code Black might mistake it for the second coming of ER, albeit with a less exciting ensemble and a tendency (common in overstuffed pilot episodes) toward too much exposition, making these doctors feel more like preachers, overly versed in the Gospel of Trauma.

Milking every ER cliché with gabby, mawkish overstatement, Code Black has a way of turning chaos into routine. Though maybe that's to be expected for an overwhelmed inner-city hospital, Angels Memorial, where the ER goes to "code black" (a term for when the patient load exceeds the staff's resources) 300 times a year.

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Critics have their own "code black," of course, an internal alarm that goes off when characters exhibit such overweening self-importance that it's an almost involuntary impulse to reach for the remote, or the mute button. This occurs almost instantly in the Code Black pilot, when the obnoxious senior ER nurse, Jesse "Call Me Mama" Sallander (Luiz Guzman, wearing out his welcome within the first minute), greets an underwhelming new group of interns by blabbing on and on about "the most famous strip of hospital real estate in the nation," a trauma center dubbed Center Stage. "They come here to get one last miracle," Mama Jesse says, warning the newbies (who come off like fourth-gen Grey's Anatomy nobodies), "You are not allowed—under any circumstance—to kill a guest in my house."

It's almost a relief when the patients start showing up.

"Trepidation's a deadly quality in this place," barks the badass Residency Director, Leanne Rorish (Marcia Gay Harden, easily the show's best asset), a maverick who naturally breaks all the rules without breaking a sweat, and when challenged by another doc about her reckless ways responds, "Sometimes you gotta be a cowboy." Is there any way to witness that exchange without a bit of trepidation?

Still, the hectic triage scenes have an undeniable power, even when the stories veer too frequently toward the maudlin, and maybe if the groan-inducing writing settles down a bit, Code Black could become the new gritty medical drama to watch. Which is an awfully big maybe. My prescription: Operate more, talk less.

Code Black, premieres Wednesday, Sept. 29, 10/9c, on CBS


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