Wednesday, September 30, 2015

REVIEW: 'Code Black' - Four New Residents Learn How to Be a Part of the Team at Angels Memorial in 'Pilot'

CBS' Code Black - Episode 1.01 "Pilot"

Residency Director Dr. Leanne Rorish puts her four new first year residents to work immediately on their first day at Angels Memorial Hospital, in the busiest, most notorious hospital ER in the nation.

Code Black handles itself well when it comes to the procedure of life in one of the most chaotic emergency rooms in the United States. This show thrives in the details of this environment. It's a very high anxiety premiere episode. One that is chaotic and claustrophobic. But also one that is emotionally rousing and uplifting in the end. The systems are in place for these characters to thrive at their jobs. This hour takes four newcomers to this hospital and makes them a part of the same team. The team that updates the information on the board, assists with any procedure that is happening, and saves lives to the best of their abilities. As an overall effect it is very successful. This show doesn't set out to reinvent the medical-driven genre. But it is a solidly executed version of it.

However, Code Black does run into some significant narrative hurdles whenever it tries doing something with its characters. When they are on the job and having to make split second decisions, the action is tense and the emotions feel mostly genuine. The narrative drive of the show is in watching the doctors and nurses treat these patient and hopefully save lives. They aren't always successful. But every story in this premiere does have an uplifting moment in the end filled with such strong emotions. The guest cast carry the weight of those moments so well. The doctors themselves don't have much personality though. Some of that comes from the hook of the show being the chaos that erupts when this hospital goes into "code black" - something that allegedly will happen in every episode. Decisions under pressure can help define the characters. In this first episode though, it's largely formulaic situations that have been played out before on a number of medical dramas.

It's also not abundantly clear if any of the characters have much of a personality. They all kinda feel like plot points. Whenever they stop moving for a second, they are just delivering exposition - either about themselves or other people. Dr. Leanne Rorish is the residency director for this program. She is a force of nature. But intensity defines the character. Marcia Gay Harden plays that character beat so well. But she is able capable of pulling off moments of tenderness as well. That is somewhat on display when she tells Dr. Hudson her patient is brain dead and when she bonds with Christa over loss. But she is a commanding presence that barks out cliche dialogue and everyone else is suppose to be intimidated by her because she's "the doctor her patients need."

Of course, that is so much better than everyone else in the cast. Luis Guzman seems to be having some fun as Nurse Jesse. Him singing that he "needs a hero" is a fantastic and colorful moment. He also has a strong connection with Leanne. They are the mommy and daddy of the ER - a point really driven home by the dialogue in this episode. Meanwhile, Christa is the slightly older resident who joined to make a difference in the world, Mario is the cocky former drug addict, Angus is unsure about his skills and got into the program due to nepotism, and Malaya is the doctor who's good but isn't given an adequate chance. All four of the new residents do get caught up in the big cases that come in and out of the ER over this hour. But they are never the primary focus of the action. It's hard to care about Angus being paralyzed with fear and not knowing if he's cut out for this program. It's slightly better with Christa learning to be assertive but that costing her the job for a brief moment of time. But then, that leads to the big chaotic set piece of the episode where she is forced to deliver a baby in an ambulance stuck on the Los Angeles highway.

So if the cases are the primary focus, how are they in this episode? They are formulaic and familiar. But that doesn't mean they can't still carry an emotional wallop. Yes, the baby in the ambulance is very melodramatic meant to add tension to an already complicated situation. But the rest of the stories aren't as manipulative. It was apparent something was up with the skateboarder throughout his entire story. But his collapse actually did feel like something that came about naturally. The stroke victim was a simple story that only took up a few moments but showcased how well the show understands that type of emotional storytelling. The big case of the episode is the little girl whose father is declared brain dead. It's something that starts tragically. Leanne doesn't know how to best handle the situation which creates some emotional complications. But it does end satisfyingly with the little girl being able to listen to her father's heart beat one more time. That's enough to prove that the show has a way of producing big emotional moments. Now it just needs to center more of them around the characters who will come back every week.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Pilot" was written by Michael Seitzman and directed by David Semel.
  • I kinda love the attending surgeon who kept referring to Angus as "young squire." That's a fun and distinctive detail even though he has absolutely no other defining characteristics.
  • That's Adina Porter - Indra from The CW's The 100 - as one of the background nurses. That doesn't seem like a great use of her or her talents.
  • It's going to take a lot of work to not make Mario appear insufferable. He is incredibly annoying. He is confident and talks bluntly but he doesn't really know his stuff or understand how much of a blunder it is to constantly bring up Christa's age.
  • Dr. Neal Hudson seems to only exist in order to be taken aback by Leanne's tactics and how reckless she has become. Everyone likes to allude to this tragedy that happened a few years ago with her and how it changed her work ethic. But the audience knows nothing about that hugely defining thing except in the broadest and vaguest terms possible.
  • I don't know how much the audience will continue to see Kevin Dunn as the head of the ER considering he has a regular commitment to HBO's Veep. However, he was a ton of fun here with his dry wit and getting his doctors to focus on the work and not their personal problems.