Review: CBS’ ‘Code Black’ is okay medicine for hospital drama addicts

I will say this for “Code Black”: it knows its TV hospital drama cliches, and when to deploy them.

Adapted by Michael Seitzman from Ryan McGarry's documentary of the same name, “Code Black” (it debuts Wednesday night at 10) is set at a Los Angeles hospital that has the nation's busiest emergency room. A code black, we're told in the opening titles, is declared when the ER has “an influx of patients so great, there aren't enough resources to treat them.” Where an average ER hits code black five times in a year, this place gets there 300 times. Its residents have to be able to multi-task in a way that makes all the County General doctors from “ER” look like slackers.

Now, many of the executives who've run CBS for 20 years worked together at Warner Bros. when “ER” was developed, so it's not surprising either that they would order a show like this, or try to bill it as “the new 'ER.'” That does “Code Black” a disservice, and not just because its pilot episode isn't in the same ballpark of the debut of “ER” – or, for that matter, early episodes of “House,” or “Scrubs,” or “Grey's Anatomy,” to name three of the best post-“ER” hospital shows.

What “Code Black” has is a pretty good cast – headed by Marcia Gay Harden as a veteran ER doctor whose tragic backstory inspires her to push her residents (including Bonnie Somerville, Melanie Chandra, Harry M. Ford, and Benjamin Hollingsworth) to the limit, Luis Guzman as the supportive but sarcastic chief nurse, Raza Jaffrey as a surgeon who's mainly there to disapprove of Harden's cowboy ways, William Allen Young as the hospital's longest-serving attending, plus Kevin Dunn from “Veep” in a recurring role as the ER chief – solid production values (the emergency room itself has its own distinct look and feel), and a fairly comprehensive knowledge of the kinds of stories that people who like hospital dramas will react to.

I consider myself someone who fits that demographic, to the point where I even kept watching NBC's “Dr. Motorcycle” “Night Shift” for a while even after I'd decided I despised the show's self-righteous main character. I watched the “Code Black” pilot making note of when the show was lifting a device from “ER,” or “Chicago Hope,” or even “St. Elsewhere” (there's a transplant involved, is all I'm saying), but also being annoyed with myself for reacting as strongly to some of those clichés as I did. They're not executed terribly, but their effect speaks more to the durability of those ideas than to their usage here.

It's a decent pilot, lacking any personality of its own at this stage, but still likely to appeal to the kind of people to which this kind of show appeals. That's circular logic, but you likely already know if you're such a person. And if not, let me put it this way: does knowing that one of the residents will wind up having to deliver a baby in the back of an ambulance that's stuck in traffic make you more or less likely to want to tune in tomorrow night?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at