“Code Black” certainly feels like a misnomer, since it’s hard to think of a medical drama that could possibly look more beige. Named after a term for a very specific type of crisis — a moment when a hospital’s resources are essentially overwhelmed by the number of emergency patients — the CBS series is trying to get maximum promotional mileage out of Marcia Gay Harden’s casting as a hard-driving surgeon, one of the heroic personnel on display. Harden isn’t the only fine actor here, but they’re all toiling in service of hoary cliches, in a pilot that quickly flatlines.
“For the next three years, I’m your mama,” gruff nurse Jesse Sallander (Luis Guzman) tells the new batch of first-year residents, in very “Grey’s Anatomy”-like fashion. Under the supervision of Harden’s residency director Dr. Leanne Rorish, they’re an eclectic but pretty nondescript bunch, other than Christa Lorenson (“NYPD Blue’s” Bonnie Somerville), who will eventually explain why she’s subjecting herself to this ordeal at a more advanced age than most of her peers.
The premise, such as it is, is that this L.A.-based facility notoriously happens to be the busiest emergency room in the U.S., one where “Code Black” is called more than any other. Throughout the hour, the code level keeps changing colors as new cases pour in, escalating the stress on staff. Yet if that’s meant to build suspense, it winds up playing mostly like a gimmick, with the requisite warm-and-fuzzy moments after all the shouting of medical jargon and fast-paced music subsides.
CBS tends to be selective and targeted with its development, and the network clearly wants another medical show in its arsenal, perhaps just to break up the monotony of putting additional serial-killer shows (oh “Stalker,” we hardly knew ye) behind “Criminal Minds.” In that regard, “Code Black” bears a passing resemblance to one of the network’s most recent stabs at the genre, “Three Rivers,” which starred Alex O’Loughlin (who no doubt thanks his lucky stars that show failed, given that he’s spent the past several years catching rays in Hawaii).
As with most of these familiar templates, unless the producers get extremely lucky with the casting beyond more established names like Harden and guest Kevin Dunn, there has to be at least some wrinkle that distinguishes the program from everything else that’s on, much less what’s passed before. And this one doesn’t come close to establishing that uniqueness, at least initially.
So when the smoke clears (or, actually, the blood gets suctioned away), those viewers who stick around might be inclined to ask, with apologies to Aaron Sorkin, “Who ordered the ‘Code Black?’ ” In keeping with the show’s general diagnosis, the responsible parties should take one big step backward.