Review: Code Black 1×1 (US: CBS; UK: Watch)

Yet another failed CBS medical drama


In the US: Wednesdays, 10/9c, CBS
In the UK: Thursdays, 9pm, Watch. Starts October 29 

CBS is, of course, the king of the police procedural in the US. Police procedurals of all ilks dominate its schedules and the ratings, and arguably it does them better than any other network.

However, for years, it’s tried to extend its procedural dominance into the medical realm, with a seemingly neverending stream of shows that quickly turn out to be low-rated, instantly forgettable one-season wonders: Three Rivers, 3 Lbs, Miami Trauma, A Gifted Man.

In fact, I’ve written pretty much this exact same intro to every new medical procedural CBS has come up with every year, so much so I’m bored of it. Maybe you are, too.

Trouble is, I fully expect I’ll be writing it again next year since CBS’s latest medical procedural, Code Black, is a yawnfest that’s almost certainly going to get cancelled by the end of the season. It’s based on Code Black, a 2013 documentary about LA County General, which is one of the largest and busiest teaching hospitals in the US, employing more than 1,000 residents at a time. The name ‘code black’ refers to when an emergency department’s resources are so overstretched by an influx of patients, it can’t take it any more, and while most EDs in the US only experience four such events a year, LA County General experiences it 300 times a year.

Time for more resources, obviously. Except that wouldn’t make for a great TV show.

And neither would Code Black, in which a whole bunch of competitive, disparate, highly dull medical residents all learn how to be ED doctors at the hands of ‘dad’, aka Marcia Gay Harden (The Newsroom, Damages), ‘mom’ being Luis Guzmán (Narcos), the senior nurse who looks after them all. Harden’s a bit hard and lacking in bedside manner following ‘an incident’ three years previously, something that concerns caring, sharing fellow doctor Raza Jaffrey (ElementaryHomeland, Spooks) but not so much hospital administrator Kevin Dunn (Samantha Who?), since Harden’s abrasive training produces the best doctors.

And that’s it, really. It’s basically ER but busier, not taking the time to do more in terms of characterisation rather than have people explain who they are and how totes awesome they are, before performing perfunctory acts of dickery. It’s just blood on the floor to blood on the floor, while a camera unsuccessfully rushes around to try to convey the impression of the original Code Black documentary. Nice, if you like medical porn, dull if you want an actual drama.

The trouble is if you just rush all the time in an attempt to convey pressure, you’re not going to end up with tension. You’re going to end up with confusion. And then boredom.

The camera goes here, the camera goes there, while the cast mumble their lines or shout them so that you never hear them. All you’ll really know most of the time is that people are ill and the doctors are trying to help them. Learn much about the US medical system from it all? Grow to love a character? Probably not.

There are scenes, almost all of them involving Dunn, where the show is allowed to breath and for characters to grow. But they’re few and far between, and sometimes oddly positioned, such as when Dunn starts talking about his eczema in the middle of surgery, to emphasise the point that people are spending too much time on characterisation and need to get back to some advanced doctoring.

But, ultimately, Code Black is just procedure with very little human interest. See you back here next year with the intro?