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Is CBS' Code Black the New ER?

The new medical drama is emotionally affecting, but have we seen it all before?

Adam Bryant

CBS has made a killing on cops and criminals over the years, but on Wednesday, the network will once again try to tap into another of TV's most reliable formats: the medical procedural.

Code Black takes viewers inside the E.R. at Angel's Memorial Hospital, one of the busiest emergency departments in Los Angeles or perhaps the entire country. Inspired by a documentary of the same name about L.A. County-USC Medical Center's E.R., the drama is built around the moment when there are more patients on the floor than can be treated by the physicians on staff. That moment is the titular code black that the doctors will inevitably fail to avoid but heroically charge ahead.

"We looked at it as it creates a situation where there's a level of heroism that's demanded on the part of the staff that we really don't see in any other aspect of society except for the military," executive producer Michael Seitzman says. "That, to me, was a great canvas for storytelling."

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Our heroes are led by Dr. Leanne Rorish (Marcia Gay Harden), the residency director who, of course, has endured a personal tragedy and, as a result, is willing to perform high-risk procedures to save lives, no matter who objects. Leading the objection most often is Dr. Neal Hudson (Raza Jeffrey), a standout physician in his own right, but one who disapproves of Leanne's "cowboy" approach to medicine. ("You're the doctor they want, "Leanne tells Neal in the pilot. "I'm the doctor they need.")

Together with Jesse Sallander (Luis Guzman), a seen-it-all-before nurse who instructs the residents to refer to him as "Mama," Leanne and Neal are charged with guiding four first-year residents as they are thrown into the deep end on their first day. Christa (Bonnie Somerville) is a mother and wife who is judged for coming to medicine at an "old" age by Mario (Benjamin Hollingsworth), a former drug addict who has cleaned up his life and wants to give back. Angus (Harry M. Ford) is a doc who has the smarts to succeed, but he lacks self-confidence after living in the shadow of his older brother, who also came through the Angel's program. But he is inspired by Malaya (Melanie Kannokada), the only first-year resident who has already done time at Angel's and is therefore treated more harshly by Leanne.

Despite TV's long history of medical shows, few have found success in the post-Grey's Anatomy era. But rather than focusing on the love lives of its doctors and their shenanigans in the on-call room, Code Black seems to taking its cues from the frenetically paced ER. Even so, Seitzman believes his show is unique.

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"We wanted to make a world that was not like any other medical show," he says. "It's not glossy. It's not it doesn't feel Hollywood. The world feels very handmade, made by people to serve people. That was the key to how to tell the story: to light it naturally, to not worry if somebody falls into darkness, to create a code black and then put three cameras in the middle of it and shoot it. What we end up with is something that feels incredibly authentic ... and doesn't really doesn't feel like anything that I've ever seen before. ... By the end of an hour of watching it, you should feel like you've had a real experience, the way that doctors... will tell you you're a different person at the end of the shift than you were at the beginning. That's really our ambition."

But is Code Black really the next ER? Sure, there is a chaotic energy infused into the show thanks to quick cuts, constant chatter and an endless barrage of gurneys bursting through doors feet first. And when Leanne is busy drilling a hole in a teenager's head while talking one of her residents through an emergency C-section over a cell phone, there is a sort of riveting tension. But at this late date, none of it feels particularly original. Even so, the actors believe these are stories that need to be told.

"You think, 'Oh, many of those stories have been done,'" Jaffrey says. "Then, during the course of this process, we got to talk to more and more doctors. ... You realize how many extraordinary stories that almost seem too incredible to put on screen happen every single day. And as long as those stories are told with the kind of integrity and with the passion that you see before us ... there's room for many, many more."

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Whether audiences will want to see this particular brand of storytelling remains to be seen, but those willing to give it a shot will get some good performances, most notably from Oscar winner Harden. (Guzman is also likable enough when he's not being saddled with exposition.) And the show will make you feel something as well. The pilot is chock-full of heartstring-tugging moments, which, as clichéd as they may seem at first glance, are still emotionally affecting. (In other words, keep the tissues handy.)

"You can't beat the story engine," Seitzman says. "These people who come in at their worst and have to be greeted by people who are at their very best. Each one of them comes with their own perspective and their own particular way of doing things, their own problems, their own backstory. How do you explore all that in the face of this rolling catastrophe?

"I think a lot of medical shows have a tendency to want to be the future of medicine," he continues. "What ends up often happening is it... kept me at arm's length. I wanted to be right up inside the story. To me, the most compelling thing about this world was the human element, the heroism of people. ... There's basic kindness in this environment that we don't see every day and sometimes we forget about. There are people out there, for very little money, comparatively, who go in there for these long shifts. And they're the ones who are there when someone comes in that door."

Code Black premieres Wednesday at 10/9c on CBS. Will you watch?

(Full disclosure: TVGuide.com is owned by CBS.)