CBS President Nina Tassler made it clear a few months ago at the TCAs: she is determined to add a medical drama to her fall line-up, a genre she never had a success with since she got the job. Nobody can or want to remember her previous attempts, but let me refresh your memory: there were Three Rivers & Miami Medical in 2009, A Gifted Man in 2011 and countless pilots that didn’t make it to series, like Only Human last year. To be fair, they were not that bad. But they failed to resonate with an audience. To make sure they find the right one this time, she and her drama team developed a ton of them: two made it to pilot stage, Code Black & LFE, while other two -an untitled project by Parenthood‘s Sarah Watson & Jason Katims and Austen’s Razor– were close but ultimately didn’t make it. It’s safe to say one of them will be on the schedule, but it’s hard to predict which. They are both strong contenders, with their own strengths and weaknesses. I have my favorite, but I’m not sure it’s the perfect one for CBS…
I’ll start with Code Black which, I predict, is the most likely to get the chance to shine. The ABC Studios co-produced drama comes from Michael Seitzman, a man who, over the years, wrote several pilots that never aired like Empire State, House Rules or Americana, all of them being very different – family soaps, political drama- and efficient but too close to home, too classical. Then came police procedural Intelligence, which was kind of original -for those haven’t seen Chuck– but painfully bad. With Code Black, he seems at ease. Honestly, the script is a page-turner, I was hooked! But it also felt a lot like an high-octane episode of Grey’s Anatomy. You know, one of those when there is a minor catastrophe that makes every doctor rushing around the hospital because there are too many patients to treat at the same time. And I looove Grey’s Anatomy from the bottom of my heart, for 10 years now. And the show is still good, but it’s another subject. The thing is, I totally understand why ABC didn’t keep it for themselves: they already have Grey’s Anatomy, they surely don’t need Code Black. And I’m not sure CBS needs it either because the audience doesn’t. Of course, the Shonda Rhimes drama will die, sooner or later, but the next great medical drama can’t be a copy of it, as Grey’s found success exactly because it was not a copy of ER. They took the best part of it to create something new and modern. Code Black is not new, and not particularly modern either.
For those who wonder what a “code black” is, here is the answer, explained during the first scene: “it’s in an emergency room an influx of patients so great that there aren’t enough personnel or resources to treat them all. The average urban ER is in code black 5 times per year. LA County Hospital is in code black 300 times per year“. It means there will be one in almost every episode, that’s the promise they implicitly make. And it’s one the writers will be able to keep but not without the same damages as in the pilot: every character gets a very short time to connect with the audience at a personnal level. We don’t know much about the residents at the end of the pilot and I’m afraid it will be hard to explore all of them equally with all the action going on (they can’t even find time to hook up somewhere). However, for now, Leanne (played by the GREAT Marcia Gay Harden) and Christa (Bonnie Somerville) are the one getting all the attention. They’re interesting, they are great characters in theory, but you cannot think about anyone else than Miranda Bailey for the first one and a mix of several female characters from Grey’s Anatomy for the latter. The interactions between Leanne and the residents work the same way as with Bailey and her residents in the ABC pilot (or Annalise Keating and her students in How To Get Away With Murder). It’s disturbing. And Code Black lacks a sense of humor. There are failed attempts then no attempts at all at some point. The medical cases are moving, but it feels like we’ve already seen them a thousand times.
LFE also shares some DNA with Grey’s Anatomy but just the right amount. The resident characters are fresh and a lot of fun: they drink, they dance, they partyyy; they joke, they poke fun at each other; they seduce; they pee on the sidewalk at night and are sent to prison for that; and of course, they are very good job at their job. Most of them are cocky, something that can be upsetting sometimes, but they are flawed characters and we’re instantly and quite subtly exposed to their own personal demons. Joe has a family to take care of since his mom died: his father is seriously sick and his brother does a huge load of nothing. Honestly, he seems a little boring but he does something very disturbing at the end of the pilot that could change that. Anj is a party girl, sexually open minded, who hides who she really is to her very traditional Indian parents who are looking for a husband for her to marry. Chelsi is the baby of the group, she’s kind of genius, she’s only 24, and she’s socially awkward, obsessed by her cases and probably still a virgin. Ryan is the hot bad boy and Mae, the Jennifer Lawrence kind of girl, fun and messy. Finally, Trevor is the nice guy that tries to look cool but almost always fail. All of them already know each other since it’s their second year of residency, and some of them even met at medical school a few years ago. We could have felt excluded from these guys that are already friends but we don’t. That’s where the writer does a brilliant job: we quicky feel like part of the team!
What makes the show different from Code Black and closer to ER is the fact that we spend a lot of time outside of the hospital’s walls: especially in New York’s finest night clubs, in the streets -I already talked about the peeing scene- and in their apartments. With the pilot being shot in Big Apple, and probably the rest of the series if it’s picked up, it really makes a difference in terms of settings and atmosphere. It’s cooler and lighter but, at the same time, there is a lot of darkness coming out of the characters -I’m also thinking about Melissa Leo’s Julie, who looks depressed- and from the situations. Drugs and alcohol are involved in the opening scene. Then there’s an arm roberry that ends up in a bloodbath. The surgery scenes are graphic. Take a look at how the writer describes the show at the beginning: “this is a stylized series. It’s badass. It’s heightened“. And he goes far then saying, and I quote: “Imagine Quentin Tarantino’s name on the title page somewhere“. It’s a little too much, dear newcomer Paul Downs Colaizzo. But you already know how to sell your script! And apparently, it worked! Instead of Tarantino, he got David Slade as a director. And it’s not bad. This man’s behind Hannibal. “Stylized”, he knows to handle it. But can CBS handle it? That’s the real question here. It feels cable-y, not network-y. That’s why I don’t think CBS will go for it. And that’s sad, ‘cos it’s the best.
While Code Black can go anywhere in CBS’s schedule, after NCIS, Scorpion or Criminal Minds, LFE seems to be bound to Sundays, the “prestige night” of the network, alongside soon-to-conclude The Good Wife and Madam Secretary. Anywhere else, it will probably bomb. That doesn’t mean Code Black WILL work, but it’s fast-paced, action-packed and sweet at times. Both of them can attract the young demo, but LFE has the edge over Code Black thanks to younger (and cuter) characters and a more modern feel, but its stylized look can also scare people and that makes it a dark horse for a pick-up to series. My heart is saying yes to LFE. But my crystal ball is all about Code Black. We’ll see in a few weeks how things turn out… And to answer loud and clear the question asked in the title of the article: none of them will be the next great medical drama in my opinion. But you never know…