Sunday, October 4, 2015

Pilot Review: Code Black



I always think that it must be so hard to be original on broadcast television whenever I watch a show like Code Black. It must be nearly impossible to come up with a new idea, a new way of saying something familiar, or a new way of presenting old tropes and stories, especially when there's clearly an audience for these tried-and-true procedural shows. And it seems even more difficult considering how middling and undistinguished most of these shows turn out to be.

There have been a slew of medical procedurals that were short-lived in the past decade or so. Everyone is trying to make the next ER or the next Grey's Anatomy, that perfect blend of life-or-death suspense in the hospital mixed with the interpersonal drama of the staff, but nothing really has come close. What those shows did that others (of which there have been plenty: Mercy, Emily Owens M.D., Three Rivers, Trauma, Miami Medical, Off the Map, Black Box, The Mob Doctor, and many others, including two more this season on NBC: Chicago Med and Heartbreaker) did not is create compelling characters in addition to the exciting medical drama. Characterization is almost always the fatal flaw of procedurals: boring characters make the audience check out. When there's no shortage of similar shows on the air, why watch this one when another can do the same thing but with more interesting people? Of course, that's not the only problem these shows face, but it's probably the most glaring, particularly in Code Black.

The problems begin almost immediately in the pilot. A title card tells us the meaning of the show's name (when there are too many patients in an ER and not enough staff to care for them) and introduces us to Angels Memorial Hospital in Los Angeles, the busiest ER in the country. (If you didn't catch that card, don't worry; the  point is brought up throughout the pilot that the hospital is understaffed and understocked with beds and gurneys.) Cut to the well-worn trope of a character literally explaining everything out loud to a group of newcomers to the ER, a convenient excuse to get not only the characters but the audience up to speed on what we're in for. A man is brought in with a neck wound and excessive blood loss, and we meet Dr. Leanne Rorish (Academy Award winner Marcia Gay Harden), the gruff but brilliant Residency Director. She pulls some risky, unpopular tricks to save the man's life by draining his blood and placing him in a kind of suspended animation while his artery is repaired, and then she immediately gets in trouble with fellow ER doctor Neal Hudson (Smash's Raza Jaffrey), who's more old-school and by-the-numbers than Rorish.

That's about the full extent of character development we get for her, though, except for one clunky line of dialogue about Leanne "not being the same these past three years" when something obviously tragic happened. (She later responds to the question "Who did you lose?" with "Everyone." Ooooh, mysterious... yet not so.) They're in charge of both supplying care to the seemingly endless number of patients and teaching the group of residents: Christa (Bonnie Somerville, NYPD Blue), the oldest of the group and a grieving mother; Malaya (Melanie Chandra, The Brink), a know-it-all; Mario (Ben Hollingsworth, The Tomorrow People), who has no distinguishing characteristics as of yet; and Angus (newcomer Harry Ford), who easily panics. Again, not much to go on with these guys. The pilot primarily focuses on Christa and her motivations for becoming a doctor so late in life, but it's the usual "tragic backstory" for her. The cast is rounded out by Luis Guzman as Jesse, a senior nurse and the parental figure for the residents (and our window into the hospital).

As you can see, this is a massive cast. Expecting any kind of true character development in a pilot that needs to introduce over a half-dozen characters would be expecting a lot, but that's the point of pilots: lay the groundwork. Rather than doing that, there are an endless number of medical emergencies to deal with: car accidents, head trauma, carbon monoxide poisoning, collapsed lungs, and more. If Michael Seitzman (Intelligence) had focused more on the people rather than the problems, Code Black might have turned out a bit better. His script is still uneven as hell, as evidenced by the imbalance of characters to plot points and by the horrible dialogue quoted above (and then some), but it might have been more forgivable if instead of silly quirks like Jesse singing "Holding Out for a Hero" (he's the fun one!) or another ER doctor nicknaming a resident Young Squire (he means business but doesn't take things too seriously!) we got actual moments of characterization.

If you're just showing up to Code Black for the medical suspense and gore, though, you're in luck: there's plenty of both. The opening scene alone has more blood spilling onto the hospital floor than most mainstream horror films. There's a cranial drill, tube pushed through fatty tissue and into a child's chest cavity, a birth via C-section, a reset bone, and more. The types who like to watch those surgical shows on TLC and Discovery will be satisfied with the amount of claret while the rest of us may need to turn away. And it would be better to continue facing away from the television for the remainder of the show, because there's nothing much worth seeing. Aside from the lack of development for the ensemble, Code Black doesn't have much to offer in other areas either. Harden and Guzman can deliver some powerful line readings, but there's only so much they can do with an underwritten script comprised almost solely of rattling off directions and instructions. Even the medical cases, themselves, aren't all that engrossing. They seem to just be there for purpose of hitting emotionally manipulative points, like a checklist. Sick child? Check. Child orphaned by an accident? Check. Babies being born? Check. Elderly couple who just want to say "I love you" one more time? Check. Cheesy, swelling strings and slow motion under a montage? Check. Code Black isn't doing anything new or unexpected or realistic, despite being based upon a documentary. It's just doing what every other medical drama does and has done, and it's not even doing it better than they did.

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