It makes sense that CBS would promote actress Marcia Gay Harden in most of the commercials for its new medical drama, Code Black. After all, she’s been nominated for several Primetime Emmy and Screen Actors Guild awards, and even won an Oscar for her work in 2000’s Pollock. However, the network’s marketing arm missed a Luis Guzmán-sized opportunity when it decided not to emphasize the real star of the show, Nurse Jesse “Mama” Salander. His is the first face viewers see when the opening’s hey-look-we’re-being-dramatic exposition fades out, and frankly, there should be more of it.
Code Black is a serious medical drama whose pilot begins with a quiet, white-text-on-a-black-background introduction. After defining the show’s title as “an influx of patients so great, there aren’t enough resources to treat them,” the intro then distinguishes Angels Memorial Hospital from all the rest. As Bustle notes, this hospital doesn’t actually exist, but it’s based on executive producer Dr. Ryan McGarry’s experiences in many of the busiest emergency rooms in the country. Such experiences were previously covered in McGarry’s 2013 documentary of the same name, which followed residents through “Los Angeles County Hospital’s legendary trauma bay.”
Cool story, but what about Guzmán? The Puerto Rican-born actor is well known for his character work in the films of Paul Thomas Anderson and Steven Soderbergh, and, most recently, his appearance in the Netflix series Narcos. So of course we should all be paying attention when his character Salander, who self-identifies as the ER’s “mama,” comes into focus in the first shot while explaining the ins and outs to a group of three-year residents on their first day.
“Hello, residents. Dr. Rorish will be here shortly, but for now, you got me. I’m Jesse Salander, and for the next three years, I’m your mama,” he says. “I’m the senior ER nurse, and I can promise you there’s nothing that goes on in this house that your mama don’t know about.”
Mind you, all of this happens in the first 30 seconds. The camera has since cut to quick shots of the four new residents, who have all been listening attentively to Salander’s introduction, but he remains the focus the entire time. That’s a good thing, because it distracts from the otherwise predictable elements that the first half-minute has already made use of or hinted at — drama, realistic life-and-death situations on operating tables, drama, overly complex medical terminology, drama, good-looking residents simultaneously trying to compete with and sleep with each other, and drama.
Cues for all of these points (and more) crop up in the two minutes that follow, when Salander walks residents Malaya Pineda (Melanie Chandra), Mario Savetti (Benjamin Hollingsworth), Christa Lorenson (Bonnie Somerville) and Angus Leighton (Harry Ford) through the ER. Pineda is a well-educated medical student and mildly pompous as a result, Savetti is a competitive bad boy, Lorenson is defensive because of her age, and Leighton is prone to nervousness. Also, Savetti and Lorenson — who immediately butt heads over the latter’s supposedly being older than the rest of them — are totally going to f*ck at one point. The cards have all been laid out before us.
Like most pilot episodes, Code Black‘s first does not yet have a recognizable montage of dramatic shots and character poses, complete with top-billed cast members’ names and a heavily synthesized soundtrack. As soon as Salander finishes his introduction, Dr. Leanne Rorish (Harden) storms onto the scene with a “Hollywood drop-off” — a wounded gangbanger — bleeding to death in a car outside the hospital. She needs the residents’ help, and she needs it now. I couldn’t help but hear the now-classic opening theme music of ER and Grey’s Anatomy in my head.
That’s when I realized I was being distracted by all the drama on display before me enough to miss Salander’s disappearance. He’s the senior ER nurse, sure, but this is a medical drama populated mostly by characters who are doctors, old and new. Salander pops up on a few occasions throughout the rest of the episode, either to give Dr. Rorish a thoughtful hug (twice), or to take orders from the head honchos and give orders to the residents. The character is essentially a delivery device, and therefore a waste of Guzmán’s immense talent.
I know what you’re thinking. “Wait, but he’s a character actor! He’s there to give support to Harden and the other big wigs. Of course he’s a delivery device.”
False on all counts, for not only is Salander the “mama” of Angels Memorial Hospital’s emergency room, but he’s also the heart of the entire show. That’s why he’s the first face the residents and the audience see, and the last one Dr. Rorish sees before the screen fades to black. Without their mother, this house would surely fall apart, or at least that’s what the Code Black narrative wants us to think. The show’s a bit like that, too: It could turn into something better, so long as it uses Guzmán more in later episodes.