By Will Ferrer
More than two decades ago, “E.R.” burst from the mind of Michael Crichton (“Jurassic Park”) onto the small screen and, over a record-breaking 15-season run, proved unparalleled in its portrayal of the personal and professional lives of medical practitioners. Burdened with the urgency inherent in its name, “E.R.” thrived on a sweeping Steadicam aesthetic that made palpable the strangeness of an urban hospital, and it endured by balancing this tension with muted exchanges between doctors and patients. A wayward glance, words unheard: There was a subtlety and beauty to the atmosphere of “E.R.” that has yet to be replicated since.
Striving to join this ratings juggernaut in the now-hallowed halls of the television emergency room is CBS’s “Code Black,” a show about E.R. physicians working hard and saving lives at Angels Memorial Hospital in Los Angeles, California.
“Code Black” — named for the moment when a hospital’s resources are eclipsed by the number of patients awaiting care — bears only passing resemblance to the gold standard in medical dramas, suffering from a cliche-ridden script and a cast that readily lacks the chemistry or charm of 90s-era George Clooney, Julianna Margulies and Noah Wyle. Here, nuance is abandoned for obvious blather and a cheap “cinematic” look that makes Angels Memorial feel like an insane asylum. It’s disappointing to see the efforts of star Marcia Gay Harden wasted on a palatable program like “Code Black,” for, in the end, there’s no escaping the fact that you’ve seen this before, and you’ve seen it better.
Bound by the same basic formula by which most medical television operates these days, “Code Black” does little inventive in terms of narrative and character development. A group of ambitious residents (egos and insecurities intact), a no-nonsense nurse (Luis Guzmán), a hardened doctor unable to save her loved ones (Harden). Such elements are stable and unchanging as the sea, appearing again and again with little complexity and even less variation. The premise of “Code Black” is a non-premise: It’s simply an amalgam of tropes shoehorned into a new locale, with a new cast to exchange blows and play will-they-won’t-they over bleeding bodies.
Even at the episodic level, “Code Black” reeks of plagiarism. I’ve only viewed the pilot (the only episode made available for viewing), but in 40 minutes, it manages to include (and this is, by no means, an exhaustive list): a resident getting fired for disobeying orders, an over-the-phone operation conducted by an inexperienced resident, a girl listening to the heart of her deceased father through a recipient’s chest, a crusading doctor performing an experimental procedure on a dying patient, a resident beating himself up for missing a diagnosis, a resident complaining about the simplicity of the cases she’s been assigned. The list of plot cliches could cover the entirety of this page.
Perhaps the 331 episodes of “E.R.” that aired prior to the first of “Code Black” have, at least for this critic, rendered originality intangible, but it’s nonetheless disappointing to see a list of emotional encounters noted and dismissed with a speed that eradicates the impulse to feel. A sense of deja vu can be frustrating, but what’s more frustrating is a sense that everything you once loved has been reduced to a calculated highlight reel.
Yet, even amid this oversimplified mess, there remains a beacon of hope: Marcia Gay Harden, a lone cowboy left clinging to the mast of a rapidly sinking tanker. Narrative fallacies be damned, charting the minute fluctuations in Harden’s voice is like studying a fresco; time passes, but there remains only more to be studied, more to be appreciated. Though her talent is largely lost on the material, her ability to make the cliche engaging bodes well for the series’s chances at CBS.
For “Code Black,” Harden’s star power grants creator Michael Seitzman a bit of time to remedy some of the show’s most glaring flaws — at least before the axe of unholy cancellation falls. Whether or not he is capable of this act of resuscitation, however, remains to be seen.
“Code Black” premieres tonight at 10/9c on CBS.
Contact Will Ferrer at wferrer ‘at’ stanford.edu.