‘Code Black’ Wants to Be 2015’s ‘ER’ — But Is It Too Derivative?

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There is always space on television for a new medical drama, regardless of its quality. These shows have no trouble finding an audience — but, unfortunately for Code Black, they will have a hard time standing out among the rest.

Code Black makes no secret of its intention to be 2015’s version of ER. The drama takes place in a Los Angeles hospital, in the country’s busiest emergency room. The title refers to a “code black” in the ER: when there are more patients than the staff can handle. Marcia Gay Harden, as always, gives a stellar performance as Leanne Rorish, the hard-ass surgeon and residency director who often goes rogue in order to get results and saves lives, much to the chagrin of Dr. Neal Hudson (Raza Jaffrey), who prefers to do things by the book.

Leanne is good at her job — and she has a mysterious but tragic backstory, likely the death of a relative — so she gets a pass to be intelligently reckless. Luis Guzman plays head ER nurse (the “mommy” of the hospital, he says) Jesse, with whom Leanne has her closest relationship. Also around is Bonnie Somerville (Kitchen Confidential) as an older first-year, Kevin Dunn (Prison Break) as the ER director who has the misfortune of delivering the requisite “We are officially in Code Black” line, and Melanie Chandra (The Brink) as another first-year resident.

The four residents are mostly nondescript thus far but embody all the basics for medical-drama characters (one whose father got him the position, one who’s a former addict and bad boy, an older woman in a career transition due to a tragedy, etc.), and I’m sure there will be some messy hookups and breakups and clashes, just as there are on every other medical drama. The series doesn’t just borrow heavily from ER but from Grey’s Anatomy and Emily Owens, MD and The Night Shift and every other program that ever centered around a hospital.

Photo: Richard Cartwright/CBS ©2015 CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Not all of this is bad: It means that Code Black is tailor-made for fans of medical dramas — and I am one — because it contains all of the basic elements that you need. Loosely based on an award-winning documentary by Ryan McGarry, Code Black quickly establishes its positives: the inherent drama of an overcrowded but understaffed emergency room, an ensemble cast, experienced producers, a high school hierarchy within the hospital staff, the appropriate amount of blood and gore, power struggles, and a busy, enclosed space for youngish, attractive people to sweat all over each other. A medical drama doesn’t necessarily have to be great in order to be successful; it simply needs to be watchable enough to keep viewers returning after the pilot episode.

This is a good thing for Code Black, because despite how much it tries to distance itself and stand out from similar shows of its ilk, it still fails to surprise or impress. The documentary-style camera work distracts instead of building suspense; instead of the intended “look how busy and rushed this ER is!” atmosphere, it’s more dizzying and desperate. The characters can be groan-worthy: Harden does her best, but we’ve seen her character too many times, and William Allen Young basically acts as a Magical Negro without the powers; he pops up to say wise and encouraging thing to the first-years, and also calls them “sires.”

The medical cases are pretty blah (it’s all urgent care, rather than the mysteries that made House so engaging): a passed-out woman who needs to give birth, a stoned skateboarder with a broken bone, etc. And, overall, the show is annoyingly emotionally manipulative. Music cues, triumphant smiles, and first cries from newborn babies are all common in dramas like these, but these elements are not subtle at all in Code Black.You’re so aware that you’re being manipulated that it doesn’t work: it’s angering instead of cathartic.

That all said: Code Black is acceptably average. Fans of medical dramas will likely enjoy it, while detractors will continue to steer clear. It’ll find an audience, and it’ll keep us busy until the next medical drama rolls around.

Code Black premieres Wednesday, September 30 at 10 PM on CBS.