Code Black’s Excellent Character Actors Make It Better Than Your Standard Hospital Drama

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Code Black. Photo: Neil Jacobs/CBS

There should be a Character Actor Hall of Fame. In front of it should be a statue of Luis Guzmán giving the side-eye, and in the lobby, a ceiling mural of Marcia Gay Harden staring down on visitors like an unforgiving God.

Guzmán and Harden, who co-star in CBS's new medical drama, Code Black, have been stealing movies and TV shows from bigger-name stars for over 20 years. Harden plays Dr. Leane Rorish, the residency director of Angels General Hospital, an understaffed and overworked medical facility in Los Angeles. The place is based on Los Angeles County Hospital’s legendary trauma bay, “C-Booth,” the birthplace of modern emergency treatment; it was profiled in a pretty good 2013 documentary of the same name, which, coincidentally, I reviewed here. This is a pretty standard hospital drama (though more stripped-down and old-fashioned than most), and Rorish is a hospital-drama touchstone, the driven, arrogant leader who says things like, "We're gonna kill him to save him!" and who would be insufferable if she weren't so good at her job; but Harden is so formidable that she makes the character tolerable, even exciting. Guzmán is (as is so often the case with him) a joy as Jesse Sallander, the head ER nurse who leads the new residents on a tour/exposition dump in the pilot's opening moments and tells them that he's their mama. "You think you're smarter than your mama?" he dares them. "Well, you're not. Your mama knows when you’re lying, crying, or dying." He tells them the most important rule of Angels General is "you are not under any circumstances allowed to kill a guest in my house."

The whole show is stocked with actors on Guzmán and Harden's level — pros you're never not happy to see, including William Allen Young as the hospital's longest-serving resident, and Kevin Dunn (Luck), who oversees the logistics of the ER and delivers wisecracks in his midwestern deadpan. The younger, prettier actors playing the residents — Benjamin Hollingsworth, Bonnie Somerville, Melanie Chandra, and Harry Ford among them — seem overmatched and a bit on the bland side, but that's to be expected, and if the writing on this Michael Seitzman series picks up, that could improve. There's nothing in Code Black that you haven't seen before; the hospital drama has been such a fixture of broadcast television that it's hard to imagine a series adding anything to it, though we could always be surprised. (The last time a show like this made everybody's head turn was probably Grey's Anatomy, which Code Black defines itself against by making its workspace seem totally unsexy; with the place regularly hitting Code Black status with 300 simultaneous trauma cases — the most overwhelmed level of the ER's color coding system — there's no time for love, Dr. Jones!) The pilot's first patient is a car-wreck victim whose blood pulses out his torn throat in Dolby-amplified splats. There's a rivalry between Rorish, who flouts the rules and makes wild calls from her gut and suffers fools with disdain, and Dr. Neal Hudson (Raza Jaffrey of Homeland), who does not approve of her methods, no, not one bit. It's bloody comfort food. But if it gives Harden weekly opportunities to stare daggers at other actors and regularly hands Guzmán irresistibly colorful monologues like the one that opens the pilot, I can see myself checking in on it regularly.