CBS’s latest procedural stays in what’s become the network’s very particular comfort zone: The world of military court. In the wake of the naval-justice franchise “NCIS” (itself a spinoff of long-ago CBS standby “JAG”), the network perhaps most closely adherent to formula has put together “The Code,” a deeply familiar-feeling product.
On “The Code,” lawyers within the Marine Corps take on cases — giddily trading off, from case to case and episode to episode — the roles of prosecutor and defender. This structure tends to give their work a fairly airless quality: Perhaps more like real lawyers than TV is used to depicting, these attorneys (played by actors including Luke Mitchell, Anna Wood, and Ato Essandoh) are motivated more by the desire to close out cases quickly and efficiently than by passionate advocacy for their clients. One episode sees a sentencing request agreed upon by “prosecutor” and “defender” over beers; they clink bottles after agreeing they’ll ask the judge for eight years. They’re all supervised by a colonel (Dana Delany) who merges imperiousness with a perfunctory sort of girlboss energy. “I’ve ordered better men than you to their deaths,” she tells one adversary. “I will end you on my way into yoga.”
There’s a tonal oddity to this series, one known to CBS viewers who like their courtroom dramas with at least one quirky side character. Here, for instance, a pilot begins with a fairly graphic murder committed by a soldier in Afghanistan, before pivoting to the flirty, bantering energy of Mitchell’s and Wood’s characters, on opposite sides of the killer’s case. Cases of malfeasance leading to loss of life are interspersed with pithy, too-short-to-mean-much glimpses of our advocates’ home lives (one is going through a family struggle with infertility, another pines for his late pal’s widow). And judges tend to follow “The Good Wife’s” lead in delivering concentrated bursts of character-ful oddity, even as they’re listening to fairly grim testimony.
Much of this feels like programming CBS has done elsewhere, and more effectively. The argument for “The Code” is its willingness to probe into aspects of military life and the traumas that go along with it — but given how jauntily, artificially upbeat so much of the series is, it’s unclear how serious the show even is about its central premise. The accomplishment of “The Code” may well be its emphasizing just how hard it is to make the military-procedural drama work, and making “NCIS” look great by comparison.
“The Code.” April 9. CBS. Four episodes screened for review.
Executive Producers: Craig Sweeny, Craig Turk, Carl Beverly, Sarah Timberman, and Marc Webb
Cast: Luke Mitchell, Anna Wood, Ato Essandoh, Dana Delany, Phillipa Soo, Raffi Barsoumian