Based on the award-winning documentary by Ryan McGarry, CBS’ new Code Black (premieres Wednesday, Sept. 30 at 10pmET/9pmCT) is a fascinating look at the split-second, life-and-death decisions being made at the nation’s busiest and most notorious ER. A group of medical residents gets a fast introduction to this ER as it operates in a code black (when an influx of patients is so great, they can’t treat them all) about 300 times a year.
Code Black is an adrenaline rush of high-stakes drama, built around strong characters (played by standouts Marcia Gay Harden, Luis Guzman and Bonnie Somerville) and an emotionally rich storyline.
Leading the residents is Dr. Leanne Rorish (Harden), who, despite suffering grave personal loss, operates in her own renegade (and sometimes questionable) style.
“She’s not an emotional mess,” Harden says. “There’s just something buried deeply underneath. She’s a person who hides her pain and doesn’t want to bring it into the workplace, but it’s there and it’s maybe made her a little bit reckless, taking chances, but that lightning speed that she uses has actually made her a better doctor.”
Harden spends much of her time at center stage, in the trauma area reserved for most critical cases, which is exquisitely orchestrated chaos involving a packed set of actors and actual medical staff. “It’s peopled with hundreds of extras, many, many med techs, our rather large cast, a large crew, and a really small space. … Real medical people (RMPs) are of absolute necessity and sustenance for us. There’s no way we could do a shot without them.”
This controlled chaos in such a tight-fitted space is crazy to watch. “There’s one scene where my character is leaving this bed after I said to Christa (Somerville), ‘If you see something, call it. Don’t hesitate. Trepidation is a deadly quality. If I guy is dead, say he’s dead.” I’m leaving and I say to someone, ‘Let me out. Let me out.’ I am so entangled in wires and machines, there is literally no way out of the room if someone doesn’t move and open up a space for me to get out and that’s how it was.”
That authenticity of the show’s medical scenes is constant. There are roughly 600 extras per episode, plus 30 trained nurses who serve as background actors. The series was actually inspired by Los Angeles County and University of Southern California (LAC+USC) Medical Center, which treats more than 28% of the region’s trauma victims and has roughly 1 million ambulatory care visits each year. Cast members were trained on terminology, as well as actual procedures. The cast went to a medical boot camp where they were required to execute four actual procedures: chest tube insertions, central line insertion, intubation and basic sutures.
Harden says it’s a constant learning experience. “The amount of things that I didn’t realize about hospitals, emergency rooms, county hospitals, politics, patients. The list goes on and on; it’s a great awakening every day. The doctors almost having to MacGyver it to care for the patients. Death is commonplace. Life is a celebration.”