Russell Baillie writes about movies for the Herald

Russell Baillie: Drama a hospital case

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From left: Marcia Gay Harden, Luis Guzman, Harry Ford, Bonnie Somervile, William Allen Young, Benjamin Hollingsworth, Raza Jaffrey and Melanie Chandra.
From left: Marcia Gay Harden, Luis Guzman, Harry Ford, Bonnie Somervile, William Allen Young, Benjamin Hollingsworth, Raza Jaffrey and Melanie Chandra.

Code Black (One, Wednesday 8.30pm) comes with some impressive qualifications. It's inspired by a well-regarded 2013 documentary of the same name about the emergency room doctors of Los Angeles County Hospital. It has a solid cast led by Marcia Gay Harden, an often superb supporting actress finally getting a lead role.

It's got some fine character actors on the case too, like Luis Guzman as the wise sergeant major of a head nurse and Kevin Dunn (Veep) as the director of the ER, who wanders in from time to time to offer gruff support or declare the sky is falling, yet again.

And it's got plenty of pace, derived from its handheld camera, fly-on-the-wall doco roots.

Its first episode certainly achieved the feeling when the emergency room of Angels Memorial Hospital is totally overwhelmed - when it reaches the "Code Black" of the title, designating that the facility doesn't have the resources to deal with the incoming patients.

But if this latest medical drama's points of difference are its bloodied grit and freneticism, that still doesn't feel like enough to sustain the interest on the evidence of this week's season opener.

Sure, it had a lot to do other than just get through its caseload of poor unfortunates who kept arriving bleeding, broken and largely anonymous in the ambulance bay.

Like introduce the hospital's intake of first year ER residents and throw them in at the deep end. Like hint at the tragic sadness that underlies Harden's Dr. Leanne Rorish's single-mindedness and absence of bedside manner. Like remind that emergency medicine make can for alarming television, especially when it involves power tools and skull tissue.

But it was sure hard to locate a pulse in all that impressively choreographed frenzy.

Though it's sure easy to feel that this ostensibly brash new medical drama, which supposedly eschews the disinfectant soap of its predecessors like ER and Grey's Anatomy, isn't above doing some very sudsy manipulative things.

They mostly involved children. There was the orphaned girl with the brain-dead father, who got to meet the patient who received her dad's transplanted heart, who was making a remarkably quicky recovery with her new ticker.

There was a miracle baby born in an ambulance caught in a traffic jam after a first-year resident finally twigged to the mother's mystery illness.

And there was poor Norwegian kid Sebastian, whose Scandinavian ancestry apparently presdisposed him to pneumothorax (the stuff you learn) who got a chest tube from one of the bumbling first year residents while his parents freaked out at the foot of his gurney (and undoubtedly did again when they saw their US medical bill).

The problem with Code Black is that if you've been near a medical drama in the past 20 years, most of this feels dreadfully familiar.

Just pouring it on thick and fast makes it no more interesting, even if Harden's Dr Rorish has the makings of a compelling character. But she's the only one so far.

Every so often Code Black takes a breather with a mop-up shot. It's for the excess bodily fluids and discarded dressings on the lino. But sometimes you can't help feel if it's also sweeping up the leaden dialogue that has crashed to the floor during all the excitement.

As a show, this might be trying to say something about the parlous state of emergency medicine in the US. It certainly looks parlous. Past that, Code Black is in dire need of a large injection of the bottle marked "storytelling". Stat.

- TimeOut

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Russell Baillie writes about movies for the Herald

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