Code Black Season 1 Episode 1 Review: “Pilot”

Code Black

After watching the series premiere of Code Black the one immediate thing I can tell you is that it’s not Grey’s Anatomy.  Not that I dislike Grey’s, but if you’re looking for a touchy-feely, relationship-driven, soap-opera type of drama, Code Black isn’t going to be your show.  This isn’t to say that there aren’t intense emotions and scenes that will be heart-breaking, but those things aren’t coming out of the character’s dysfunctional love lives.  It’s life as it goes on at the fictional “Angeles” Los Angeles ER that drives the action and emotions.  In this life and death drama , hese doctors are there to save lives, not jump into bed with each other (well, at least not right away).  I can’t say that there aren’t a couple of blatant relationships in the making, but those are not the engine Code Black is running on.

The Show’s Background

One of the things that separates Code Black from other medical drama shows is that it’s based on a real place.  Before there was a television series called Code Black, there was the 2013 Los Angeles Film Festival documentary winner of the same name.  It was made by a real doctor, Ryan McGarry – and the synopsis reads like a TV pitch.

“McGarry follows a dedicated team of charismatic, young doctors-in-training as they wrestle openly with both their ideals and with the realities of saving lives in a complex and overburdened system. Their training ground and source of inspiration is “C-Booth,” Los Angeles County Hospital’s legendary trauma bay, the birthplace of Emergency Medicine, where “more people have died and more people have been saved than in any other square footage in the United States.” (www.codeblackmovie.com)

Judging from the pilot, the producers of Code Black really worked to capture the look and feel of the film – and they succeeded.   One way they managed this is with the casting.  The show does not have the typical Hollywood TV show look.  It’s good to see this level of diversity, not just racially, but in ages and that “glam” factor.  On television – especially network television – it gets to a point where you can’t tell what show you’re watching because everyone onscreen is cut from the same mold.  Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but for the casting of shows it seems like there’s only one eye for the masses of beholders.  This is not the case with Code Black.  I love this cast – and talent-wise, everyone is amazing!

Code Black

Even before knowing what the show’s background was the names of  some of the cast were enough for me to want to check out the pilot.  Generally speaking you don’t lure successful movie actors to television unless it’s for something really, really good.  Marcia Gay Harden has one Oscar win and one nomination for best supporting  – she won for Pollack and was nominated for Mystic River.  Meanwhile, Luis Guzman has been in more movies than I can count.  You may remember him from Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Traffic, or the The Limey.  The first three garnered him Screen Actor Guild nominations for best supporting actor, and he received an Independent Spirit award nod for the fourth.  William Allen Young is another actor who has worked steadily for decades and was in District Nine and A Soldier’s Story.

Raza Jaffrey was in season four of the Showtime series Homeland as Colonel Aasar Khan.  I know I originally said movie actors, but lets face it: the premiere cable and online streaming shows are basically long movies.  Who leaves cable for network television?  Exactly. Most actors are trying to do it the other way around…although, maybe that’s changing now as well.

Anyway, CBS did a great summary of their show so I’m not going to reinvent the wheel:

CODE BLACK is a heart-pounding medical drama that takes place in the busiest, most notorious ER in the nation, where the staggering influx of patients can outweigh the limited resources available to the extraordinary doctors and nurses whose job is to treat them all—creating a condition known as Code Black.  At the heart of the ER’s controlled chaos is Residency Director Dr. Leanne Rorish (Harden) , renowned for successfully performing high-risk procedures in Center Stage, the trauma area reserved for the most critical cases.  Her four new first-year residents are Her four new first-year residents are Christa Lorenson, Malaya Pineda, Mario Savetti and Angus Leighton.  Leanne’s confidante, Jesse Sallander (Guzman), is an amiable seen-it-all senior nurse who manages the residents. Also working in the ER is Dr. Neal Hudson (Jaffery), an excellent physician who sometimes disagrees with Leanne’s “cowboy” approach, and Dr. Rollie Guthrie (Young), the energetic, longest-serving attending. In Center Stage, life is measured in seconds, and these heroic doctors and nurses operate with speed and skill within an overwhelmed system to treat the crowds of people who are often there for one of two reasons: to die or to receive a life-saving miracle.

The Premiere Episode

All of above sounds great on paper, but the real thing you likely want to know is if show managed to create the level of “heart-pounding” drama as described?  They did.  From the very beginning the show sets up that this hospital is one intense place.  The opening title tells viewers what Code Black is and that while it occurs on average 5 times a year at most hospitals, at L.A.’s “Angels Memorial Hospital” it happens 300 times. Then we meet Jesse Sallander.  He sets the tone and character of the world we’re about to enter: It’s one crazy, but loving, dysfunctional house.

Jesse: Hello residents.  Dr. Rorish will be shortly, but for now, you have me. I’m Jesse Sallander and for the next three years, I’m your mama.

In a take-off of the traditional urban tradition of “the dozens” we get Jesse taking the new residents around the hospital as he riffs on the idea that he’s their “Mama” – a mama that sees all, knows all, and that you don’t want to think of trying to hide anything from him.

The residents are paired off by mere glances.  The young attractive Mario Savetti (Benjamin Hollingsworth) has a moment of checking out the older attractive Christa Lorenson (Bonnie Somerville) – who we can see has been taken aback by the term, “your mama” (We later find out she’s actually a mother). The sweet baby-faced Angus Leighton (Harry M. Ford) looks awed, impressed and at times a little overwhelmed to be in trauma center where the president of the United States has a trauma bed held for him whenever he’s in Los Angeles.  Malaya Pineda (Melanie Chandra) a beautiful woman Indian descent is the only one in the group who’s unfazed, and she and Angus take turns watching each other when the other isn’t looking.

Angus asks Malaya a question:

Angus: “If he’s mama who’s daddy?”

A buzzer then goes off and right on cue Dr. Leanne Rorish (Roar-ish – great name!) barges in:

Leanne: “Homeboy drop off! Let’s move!”

Malaya: “That’s daddy.”

The amount of information packed into the dialogue of the show is impressive.  With a few lines we get not only the definition of a homeboy drop 0ff (a wounded gang-banger is left by the E.R. door in a car.) but the social and racial issues that are tied up in this practice.  We also see that Dr. Rorish and Christa are going to be at odds fairly often.  Christa finds the term “homeboy drop off to be racist.  Leanne informs her that it’s the name the gang bangers use for the practice – the hospital didn’t create the moniker.

There’s no pulling punches on the near – death look of the patients in this pilot, and the gangbanger one is particularly gruesome.  However there’s no time spent contemplating the blood and wounds being seen.   We see this stuff because this is the reality of what the doctors are working with.

Leanne quickly starts ordering the residents to do various things.  Christa hesitates and Malaya quickly jumps in to say she can do it, but Leanne has Mario do it.  This will become a theme.  Malaya is the most capable of the four but seemingly both Leanne and Jesse  are willing to ignore her.

Leanne isn’t thrilled with Christa’s hesitation though.  As they’re wheeling in the massive body of this guy, Mario riding on top of the gurney with his finger being the only thing keeping him from bleeding out, Leanne sharply chastises Christa.

“Life, is measured here in split seconds.  Hesitate, and people die.”

Angus thinks they need to find the guys blood type, but he’s wrong.  They’re no time for that.  Leanne has already sent for packs of O negative blood.  However it’s Malaya who catches an error in Leanne’s thinking.  Because of the wound type the blood won’t stay in the victim’s body long enough for a surgeon to complete the necessary surgery.  She says this out loud and Leanne here;s it.

Hold on, she’s right”

Throughout all of this intense action Leanne is presence is one of intense calm.  She’s not slow in any sense of the word, but every word and action is precise and clear.  Hearing Malaya’s point doesn’t throw her, it simply causes her to change tactics.  There’s a nice moment of camaraderie between Leanne and Jesse, as she quips that they are going to need those packs of blood, which freaks out Mario.  He thinks she means to let the guy die.  To the astonishment of the interns she orders backs of cold saline.

It’s at this point that we meet Dr. Neal Hudson.  He’s not thrilled with the plan he sees unfolding.  Leanne calls on Christa to explain what the plan is.  This time Christa is prepared.  The cold saline will be used to replace all of the man’s blood.  In theory it should put him in “suspended animation” and give the surgeon the necessary hour to repair the artery that is causing him to bleed out.   He glares as Leanne starts the action.  The last shot before break is the waterfall of blood continuing to fall into the giant pool of it on the floor.

The commercial gives the audience a chance to let go of the breath they weren’t aware they were holding.  Nearly every scene holds a similar tension, even the ones not revolving around life and death.  Amid the nonstop medical emergencies emotional conflict is everywhere.  They include:

  • The different approaches to medicine that Neal and Leanne have: A conversation Neal has with the board administrator reveals the details of this.  Neal is a former student of Leanne and he feels that a tragedy he and the administrator are aware of has changed her, made her harder to handle and more reckless.  The administrator disagrees.  For one, the patient she handled with that saline trick survived.  Yes, a lot of residences drop out of her program but the ones that make it through are better doctors who go on to more prestigious positions. The board is happy with this, so he’s happy too.  However, he’s not Leanne’s enemy.  He cares about her as much as the patients and the well-being of the hospital’s reputation.  Leanne describes the situation best.  Neal is the kind of doctor patients want, but she’s the kind they need.
  • Mario’s fascination with Christa’s age:  Mario doesn’t get why a woman who was a soccer mom would suddenly decide to go back to school to become a doctor, never mind taking on one of the toughest residency’s in the country.  He comes from a rougher world, including having fought and triumphed over a drug problem.  Why would she give up what in his mind is an easier life? (I think he’s also just fascinated with Christa)
  • Angus lives in the shadow of his superstar doctor older brother: Angus is clearly not sure he’s good enough to be there.  It wasn’t a passion that drew him to emergency medicine, his father got him in.   He’s not above using Malaya’s help to get through things, but honestly, she doesn’t seem to mind.  Whether that’s because she knows of Angus’s brother and thinks Angus will be great too, or some other reason, remains to be seen.
  • Malaya keeps having to eat humble pie:  She’s the best of the bunch, but because she went to medical school at this hospital both Leanne and Jesse keep giving her mundane assignments.  It’s “Mama” Jesse that explains this to her.  However it doesn’t quite take away the sting that Angus stole her answer regarding a stroke victim and gets to work on the case, but she gets shot down.  Like I said before though, it’s not Angus that she’s annoyed with.
  • Christa and Leanne can’t get along: Maybe it’s because Christa is closer to Leanne’s age (although Leanne is definitely older) and Leanne has some of the same questions that Mario has.  When Christa defies a direct order Leanne fires her.  However, Christa follows up on her hunch anyway – and it’s a good thing she did.

The Medical Cases

There are six different medical cases woven through this episode, which is another reason you can barely catch your breath.  The most heartbreaking one is a young girl who’s already lost her mother.  She and her father were in a car accident and the father dies.  Leanne and Neal have to break this news to the girl and worse, explain that the father was an organ donor.  The situation touches on something in Leanne’s history but by the end of the episode we aren’t sure exactly what.  However, Leanne arranges for the girl to meet the child who got the father’s heart and it’s a weepy moment – both on screen and for those watching.

A teenager with a broken arm turns out to have a head injury that no one catches until it’s nearly too late.  Both Angus and Malaya worked with the guy and missed it symptoms.  Everyone assumes the slurred speech and wacky comments are because he’d been high on pot – even his friends thought so. The scenario proves a statement Leanne makes to the residents early on.  Don’t take the patients that are being held in the less critical area as less serious.  They may be the ones who will need your help the most.  Leanne is the one who saves this guy.  She’s drilling a hole in his head to drain off the blood pooling around his brain – while talking Christa through her first C-section delivery.  The hospital is in code black and she’s doing this because Christa is in the back of an ambulance stuck in traffic with the mother.

How Christa got in that situation is by following her instincts.  When the patient was brought in Mario thought the young very pregnant woman was suffering from heroin withdrawal (because she had tracts in her arms) and was trying to get a score.  Christa disagreed and wanted to run a toxin screen of her blood.  Leanne told them to cut the woman loose, but Christa tries to get the screening done anyway.  This is when she gets fired.

After being fired, Christa realizes that the woman’s symptoms could be from carbon monoxide poisoning.  A call to the woman’s house gets no answer – because she’s passed out on the floor.  Christa must has gone to check on the woman, because the next time we see Christa she’s in the back of the ambulance.  Afterwards she and Leanne have a talk.  Christa tells Leanne that she became a doctor because her son died of a rare disease.  It’s here that we learn that Leanne lost “everyone.”  Whatever the accident was that Neal spoke of earlier – it wiped out her entire family.

Tourists from Norway arrive with their young son in pain and barely able to breath.  Leanne realizes it’s a genetic thing specific to Norwegians and that the kid has a collapsed lung.  She had Angus do the tubing to get air into that lung, but he needs Malaya to surreptitiously talk him through it.

The answer Angus stole from Malaya has him following Dr. Rollie Guthrie with a stroke patient.  Malaya’s answer, that they would need to use a specific drug in the hopes that it would reverse the symptoms, is a risky maneuver, but it works.  He has figured out that mama and daddy ignore Malaya because they know she’s good and are testing everyone else.  He’s not sure if he’s going to pass the tests.

The Wrap Up

It’s not clear if Dr. Guthrie realizes that Angus got the answer from Malaya or not, but he walks in just after Angus has explained to Malaya his doubts about being there.

Rollie:  “Hell of a night.  Started out saving a life, end up nearly killing someone.”

Angus:  “Two, people, actually. I missed an epidural hematoma.”

Malaya: “I missed it too.”

Rollie:    “You know what that sounds like to me?  A typical night in this joint.”

With that deadpan reassurance Rollie walks out.  For the audience, the message is clear.  The roller-coaster of action and emotion we’ve just gone through will be the norm every week.  Will you be back to watch?  I hope so.  This is a good show.  I know it’s up against some major competition (I love me some Cookie and Boo-Boo Kitty), but that’s what DVR’s are for.  Record the best that’s on TV and setup your own prime time schedule.  Goodness knows there’s a lot of time where there’s nothing on worth watching.

Have you had a chance to check out Code Black?  Let me know if you liked it as much as did – or not.

Want more news and reviews about Code Black and other cool shows?  You can follow me on Twitter.

[Photos via CBS]


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