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‘Code Black’ Review: CBS’ Marcia Gay Harden Medical Drama Is a Bloody, Frantic Mess

Oscar winner plays to type in formulaic new series

It’s never a good sign when the title of a show has to be spelled out.

CBS’ new hospital drama “Code Black,” which premieres Wednesday, not only opens with the explanation that “code black is hospital speak for an influx of patients so great, there aren’t enough resources to treat them” but to drive home the point, the term is yelled out at various times throughout the series.

Because, as we’re told in the intro, the fictional Angels Memorial Hospital in Los Angeles goes “code black” 300 times a year when most other hospitals “code black” five times a year.

This code black way of life also sets the scene for Dr. Leanne Rorish (Oscar winning star Marcia Gay Harden), a brash rule breaker who is more interested in saving patients’ lives by any means necessary than making friends.

So of course Rorish — which rhymes with at least two unflattering words — has a tragic backstory and of course she has a colleague who doesn’t approve of her methods (Raza Jaffrey, “Homeland”). Rorish also has a sassy sidekick (Luis Guzman), who also happens to be the head nurse, and four fresh residents to berate and whip into shape.

Sometime after getting an Oscar nod for “Mystic River,” Harden became the quintessential ball buster in movies and shows alike. It’s a archetype she’s perfected on everything from “Trophy Wife” to “How To Get Away with Murder.”

But because she has played a talented but obtrusive woman one too many times, seeing her do the same on “Code Black” just makes you want to turn the channel. By the time it’s revealed that Rorish actually cares about people other than those she’s fighting to save, i.e., the relatives of her patients or her coworkers, the need to see her as more than a robotic harpy with a sad background is lost.

Harden’s unfortunate typecasting is the least of the ailments afflicting “Code Black.” When blood isn’t flying everywhere and the doctors aren’t rushing from one disaster to the next, derivative characters bombard the screen with familiar tropes. As an added twist, guest star Kevin Dunn and cast member William Allen Young appear to be playing two different versions of Dr. Richard Webber from “Grey’s Anatomy.”

Despite all of this, there are those who will appreciate “Code Black” for the by-the-numbers hospital drama that it is. They will revel in the gore and guts of it all, the thin lines between life and death, the misdiagnoses made right and those rare moments when Rorish bothers to lift her hardened visage into a smile.

For those who aren’t hospital drama junkies, “Code Black” is a hard sell and a series that would’ve been better off as a made-for-TV movie.

“Code Black” premieres Wednesday Sept. 30 at 10 p.m. on CBS.