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

Code Black
Neil Jacobs/CBS
CODE BLACK, based on the award-winning documentary by Ryan McGarry, is CBS's heart-pounding new medical drama that takes place in the busiest, most notorious ER in the nation where the staggering influx of patients can outweigh the limited resources available to the extraordinary doctors and nurses whose job is to treat them all -- creating a condition known as Code Black. At the heart of the ER's controlled chaos is Residency Director Dr. Leanne Rorish (Marcia Gay Harden, center/right in white), renowned for successfully performing high risk procedures in Center Stage, the trauma area reserved for the most critical cases. Her confidante, Jesse Sallander (Luis Guzman, center/left wearing white gloves), is an amiable seen-it-all senior nurse who manages the residents. Also part of the mix is Dr. Neal Hudson (Raza Jaffrey, at the foot of the patient on the left), an excellent physician who disagrees with Leanne's "cowboy" approach, and Mario Savetti (Benjamin Hollingsworth, at the head of the patient on the left), one of Leanne's four new first year residents. The series premieres Wednesday, Sept. 30 (10:00-11:00 PM, ET/PT), on the CBS Television Network. Photo: Neil Jacobs/CBS ©2015 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved

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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