Wednesday, September 28, 2016

REVIEW: 'Code Black' - New Doctors Join Angels Memorial While Mike Suffers a Major Accident in 'Second Year'

CBS' Code Black - Episode 2.01 "Second Year"

Colonel Ethan Willis (Rob Lowe) joins the team at Angels Memorial from the Department of Defense and takes Dr. Mike Leighton on a harrowing helicopter ride to save shark bite victims in Malibu.

There are times throughout "Second Year" where it feels like Code Black is trying to do a new pilot. There have been a lot of changes that have happened between seasons. The show wasn't the biggest hit for CBS but it did well enough to return for another season. Its return is marked by Raza Jaffrey (Neal) and Bonnie Somerville (Christa) exiting the cast, Boris Kodjoe (Campbell) and Jillian Murray (Heather) being promoted to series regulars, and four new additions including Rob Lowe (Col. Ethan Willis) joining the cast. That's a lot of change. So, it's not surprising at all that this first episode wants to serve as an introduction to the four new characters. There are just times where it feels familiar. It's the show going through the same routine it did for its actual pilot a year ago. The episode opens with Jesse welcoming the new first-year residents to Angels Memorial. He introduces himself as their momma and Leanne explains the code system to them. They are then immediately pushed into being excellent doctors when the traumas start coming through the doors.

And yet, the show learned a lot during its first season. This isn't a complete reinvention of what the show is trying to be. It evolved in a number of strong ways at the end of last season. It's able to continue that confidence with is storytelling. Yes, "Second Year" ends on a case with two girls needing to emotionally comfort each other just like the pilot did. But the show has newfound confidence with pacing and world-building. This isn't just a standard medical procedural. A large part of it is that. The medical cases still comprise a large portion of the dramatic material. But there are a lot of personal stakes to the storytelling as well. The show isn't just going into code black just because it thinks it needs to in every episode. Things are chaotic when everyone is working at center stage when the traumas from Malibu arrive. But the show doesn't need to explicitly say that the ER is in code black. It's not just something that the audience has accepted as part of the show. It's no longer the thing that defines it. The characters and personal stakes are now what propels the show forward.

Of course, the big thing that happens here is Mike getting severely injured. It's not a surprising development at all. The show knows that it won't have Tommy Dewey on a permanent basis due to his regular gig on Hulu's Casual. He's filmed a lot of material during his off months from that show. So, it's a tad surprising he's written out so early in the season. But his injury helps put Leanne back in the position of the head doctor in the ER teaching the new residents. It's a role she has filled very well. Working as an administrator was never her thing. And now, there will be even more reason for tension between Campbell and the entire ER department. The hospital board has combined the two departments. Leanne doesn't like it but enjoys being able to work as an attending physician again. She never wanted the job in the first place. So, it's a very understandable move for the show to do. Plus, Mike's injury helps give Angus an important story in this episode that ensures he'll remain a vital part of the series this season. It also helps with the introduction of Colonel Ethan Willis.

It was certainly surprising to see Rob Lowe sign onto this show following his acclaimed work on FOX's one-and-done sitcom The Grinder. That was a genre-bending and spoofing series while this one is more traditional. That doesn't make it bad though. It's not trying to reinvent the format but it's a solid execution of this genre. Lowe fits into the world of the show very easily as well. Sure, it's a bit weird that he's introduced with an expositional line of the military apparently sending Angels Memorial doctors every year. That was never mentioned at all last season. But it's an easy way for him to come onboard with a different perspective. It's clear right away that Leanne will get along well with him. He can be just as rogue and dangerous as she can be when trying to save lives. He also serves as a way for the show to be on the cutting-edge of medical treatments. A big criticism of the show has been its formulaic narrative that features stories that have been told before. It will be hard to say that after seeing a shark bite victim being injected with foam that makes him look like a twinkie. That was unexpected and a pretty gross visual. But it highlighted how smart this new guy is and the skills he brings to the table. Sure, he's risking his own life by jumping out of a helicopter into shark-infested waters. But he's doing so to save the other surgeon who he has just met.

Of course, it is a little annoyingly foreshadowed that something bad is going to happen while Mike and Ethan are at the beach. The premiere basically starts with Ethan talking about his fear of helicopters and how frequently they crash. That was the first sign that something bad was about to happen. But it was still surprising to see Mike actually fall out of the helicopter because the winds were so bad. It makes for a tense and dramatic way to open the season - which is much more effective than the welcome party going on back at Angels Memorial. It also makes for quite the tense premiere between Ethan and Angus. Angus wants to do whatever it takes to save his brother. Ethan wants the same thing. They just have different ideas of how best to do that. Angus feels like he is being cut out of the process. He is forced to stand behind the orange line at center stage. And then, when his father shows up, he doesn't want to hear any of the details about Mike's condition from him. It's clear that Angus' father is the only guy who actually likes Campbell. But Angus' feelings are just as valid too. Sure, he lashes out at Ethan for the role he played in all of this. He's still a stranger. The two are able to mend fences a little bit. But it's still apparent that there are some mysteries to Ethan's past. Some that could complicate his story on the show.

Meanwhile, the new trio of residents don't make much of a first impression at all. It's clear there's three of them in order to mirror the three remaining second-year residents. Angus, Mario and Malaya now have to learn to teach as well as practice medicine. It's a very important skill set that they still need to develop. The burden largely falls on Mario as he leaves the two new female residents - Charlotte and Noa - in charge of a case. The third resident is mainly stuck in a lame subplot about being punished after wondering if there was a doctor's lounge. The other two are actually given something to do. That signals that they'll be important this season even though they are only signed on as recurring guest stars. But the story isn't all that great compared to everything else happening in the premiere. Sure, it's funny when everyone wants to think of Charlotte as an actress because of a successful career and hit film franchise. But it hardly builds character beyond that detail while the other is just skeptical about the diagnosis of the patient. It's largely just an example that this year is going to be different for the second year residents. And yet, the premiere is much more successful at producing solid emotion when a son is reconnecting with his abusive father or when two sisters need to lean on each other to cope with the death of their friend.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Second Year" was written by Michael Seitzman and directed by Loni Peristere.
  • It really is so odd that Neal and Christa's exits aren't mentioned at all. They are just gone. The audience has no clue what happened to them. That could set up a return later on. But it feels awkward given how important they became during the final episodes of the first season.
  • Ethan's mysterious past is laid out by Campbell questioning why he was sent to Angels Memorial in the first place. It's an expositional beat to end on. But it teases that Ethan did something both heroic and not in his past.
  • The sparks are clearly starting to fly between Ethan and Leanne already. It's subtle but it's there. It shouldn't be something the show rushes into though. Her romance last season wasn't great at all and had a rather abrupt end. Hopefully, things are better this time. But first, Ethan needs to be fleshed out as a character.
  • Those teenage characters were horribly annoying with their constant whining about the boy they like. Yes, it's pretty realistic. But it got very tiring very quickly. At least Ethan has the patience to deal with those kinds of patients.
  • Guthrie just remains the stable and sturdy presence in the background of the ER. He doesn't demand attention or dramatic stakes. He's just there to provide another attending physician to look over cases in the ER and offer some really sage wisdom.