Code Black: We Plug Holes

So the pilot of hectic emergency room drama Code Black made it clear: this show is about hectic emergency room drama. The question is, come week number 2, whether it’s going to be round the clock bedlam – in other words more of the same – and nothing else, or Marcia Gay Harden and Luis Guzmán are going to surprise us.

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Medical Bootcamp
First off, Angels Memorial Hospital – where Code Black takes place – still suffers from a nonstop influx of patients, but at least the show’s got more time for them than it did in the pilot. Having to cram the necessary exposition in there, amidst an already chaotic situation with a high number of characters and an even higher number of extras, that’s not an easy job, but as far as I was concerned (unlike other critics), the show pulled through. It’s good to see Code Black has left the train station with ‘We Plug Holes’ (I don’t know why such a serious show would opt for such a juvenile title, but okay). It’s found a rhythm and a calm, while getting through another shift of what could be described as medical bootcamp.

Rivalry
In the pilot, it was established that Leanne (Gay Harden) doesn’t think twice about cutting corners, and that’s why her relationship with colleague Neal (Raza Jaffrey) is far from great. There’s serious animosity between them, but somehow it’s nowhere to be seen in the second episode. The only thing that actually promised rivalry (and therefor drama) was left by the side the road.

On Their Toes
So, to come back to the question of whether or not this show will surprise us, I’d say no. It looks like, of all the new series that premiered in the last two weeks, Code Black is the most procedural of all. But let’s not hold that against it. They’ve chosen a concept and the only thing that matters is if they’re doing a good job within the confines of that concept.
The show’s about an emergency room. People come in. Lots of them. The hospital’s understaffed (because, well, they don’t want to tell you, that’s why). Then the doctors do the best they can, base their decisions on hunches, because there’s no time to think it through. They operate, almost guerrilla style; hello entrails. Patients live. Doctors clap. Patients go home. Doctors take a cigarette.
‘We Plug Holes’ basically follows the same pattern as the pilot, so the show really has to look out for not becoming one of those ‘watch one and you’ve seen them all’. It’s already quite a thin concept as it is. The interesting parts should come from personal relationships between the doctors, but they’re all just busy trying to do their best in order not to get fired. Everybody’s walking on their toes, which leaves zip room for friendship or even a brief locker/supply room romance (and/or hole plugging).

Puzzles
Okay. No relationships. What about the mind-blowing medical puzzles that have to get solved? Let’s put it this way: they either go too fast and over your head, or they’re absent. It’s just quick, quick, quick, scalpel, suction, clamp, syringe, we’re losing him, we’re losing him, defibrillator, nip, tuck, stitch him back up, wham, bam, done. See you next week for a bunch of new rushed procedures.

The Overall Production
Well, no puzzles either, I guess. Is there anything exciting left? Yes. Two things. The overall production for one thing. Camerawork, direction, editing is all very much to write home about. Second: Marcia Gay Harden. She always does something interesting and always delivers. Honourable mention: Emily Nelson, who plays desk nurse Hannah.
So far, Luis Guzmán is totally under-utilised. More than give a speech at the beginning, and briefly steer everybody in the right direction during the shift is all the work he’s given to do. There’s just too much well produced chaos and not enough story.

Limitless: Badge! Gun!

It’s not uncommon for second episodes to temper the excitement caused by their pilots that came before. It’s almost like the second song on a record, following a brilliant opening track; no matter the quality, number 2 can easily be a perceived as a bit of a letdown.

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A-List Movie Star
And such is the case with Limitless. Whether it’s a temporary setback or a perfect example of things to come, ‘Badge! Gun!’ does the pilot all over again, only in stripped down form. And without Bradley Cooper. To start with him, ever since it was known Cooper – now an A-list movie star – would appear on the show, it begged the question for how much, how long and in what capacity. He’d reprise his role of Eddie/Edward Morra in the movie, but how ‘supporting’ would he be? You don’t want him to get all the attention, no matter how small his role is; you’ve got an actual leading man (Brian Finch, played by Jake McDorman) after all. If the second episode makes anything clear, it’s not to expect too much of him. All ‘Badge! Gun!’ does, is rehash short clips from the pilot in which Cooper explains the rules to Brian. Welcome to CBS, everybody, where the concept apparently needs to be repeated over and over.

Stolen Thunder
From what I’ve heard, having a big movie star on your show – even if he only appears once or twice – does more bad than good, unless he’s the main character. Shawn Ryan’s TV adaptation of Beverly Hills Cop was supposedly never ordered to series, because Eddie Murphy’s one-time cameo in the pilot stole everybody’s thunder. The show was most likely not going to survive without him – the audience would continue to hope for Murphy to show up again, until they’d realize he wouldn’t, be disappointed and reject the show altogether. Limitless seems to have a similar problem here, with the ghost of Cooper hanging above it, no matter how well McDorman is channeling him (close your eyes and you hear Cooper talking).

The Apprenticeship
Last week, Morra brought in Brian (if not to say kidnapped) and told him the first rule of being kidnapped and blackmailed is not to talk about being kidnapped and blackmailed. The upside to all of this? An antidote to NZT, the powerful drug that unlocks everything in your brain, but normally destroys the people who take it. Morra has found a way to get his NZT fix without dying a horrific death, and for some reason, has chosen Brian as his apprentice.
But like The Apprentice – the reality show – it’s still completely vague what that apprenticeship entails. We sure don’t get any answers, except don’t google ‘Edward Morra NZT’ unless you want a power outage. Limitless needs more answers than it’s giving us, to stay compelling. Otherwise it’s just the same old cop-and-expert-solve-crimes procedural bullshit.

A Little Cartoonish, Too Serious
However, as far as procedural bullshit is concerned, the series does bring a freshness to the proceedings. Brian’s certainly got the likability factor, doing his new job at the FBI almost naively. It does get a little cartoonish at times, though. Brian turns into this superhero when he takes a pill, and seemingly without effort solves the case. That might be exactly what they’re going for, given the animations and two (or more) Brians talking to themselves in one frame. They clearly want to keep things light. But then, the one-we-don’t-speak-of (Morra) seems to be too serious for the show. It’s too soon to tell, actually, but as far as I can tell now, there’s not a whole lot at stake, except Brian not being able to tell anyone about anything.

Big Something
To break it down: Brian has access to pills. Takes one and becomes this mastermind. Solves crimes. Gets the antidote from Morra, and has to keep that a secret. Morra’s got plans for him. How bad could those plans be? Morra’s also one of the good guys, at least he used to be. Would that have changed? And why? In other words: mystery’s a nice thing, but there’d better be something big at stake, and that big something has yet to surface.

Code Black: Pilot

The medical procedural used to be quite popular, but sometimes the perfection of a specific format can be a curse in disguise. Between 2004 and 2012, there was only one doctor who mattered, and everything that has come after, just pales by comparison. Networks try, but eventually fail at bringing the ‘next great medical drama’ (they all always seem to be advertised the same way). The only exception is The Knick, which is getting some traction, and now maybe this new CBS show called Code Black, that looks more ER than House MD, and that might be a clever move.

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The Paragon
Marcia ‘Daddy’ Gay Harden and Luis ‘Mommy’ Guzmán star in what could be described as a better looking version of ER, without the unnecessary subplots of its main characters’ personal lives. Code Black is about ‘code black’ and that means chaos on the hospital floor. At least 300 days a year, this particular emergency room suffers from too many patients and not enough beds. Doctors have to act quickly, efficiently in order to help as many people as possible. It’s a pressure cooker; indeed, the paragon to build a series around.

Upfront
Mommy and Daddy are in charge of the place, but there’s also Neal Hudson (Raza Jaffrey, Homeland, Smash, Elementary), who’s not too happy with how Daddy’s handling her patients. She’s taking too many risks, but she saves a lot of people, so their boss (Kevin Dunn, Veep, True Detective) turns a blind eye. The board likes her, so he loves her, he says. If this show has an actual antagonist, Hudson’s probably it, but he’s fighting with Harden’s character – who’s actually called Leanne – openly, and despite their differences of opinion they seem to be upfront with each other, so that makes it harder to create drama between them.

A New Batch
The episode starts with Mommy giving a terrifying speech, that’s also quite inspirational. Jesse (Mommy’s real name) gives a new batch of doctors the tour. That includes Mario (Benjamin Hollingsworth, Suits, Backstrom), Malaya (Melanie Chandra, The Brink), Christa (Bonnie Somerville, NYPD Blue, Cashmere Mafia) and Angus (Harry Ford). After only a minute or two, they’re – as are we – in the middle of chaotic life saving situations. Malaya’s the prodigy, Mario the cocky one, Christa’s the hesitater and Angus doesn’t think he belongs there at all (but is going to stay anyway, you’ll see, if only to make his father proud).
Also lurking in the background: Adina Potter (The Newsroom, True Blood) and William Allen Young (CSI, CSI: Miami, Good Luck Charlie). Jill Andre has a small guest role. This lady’s done it all, from St. Elsewhere, Trapper John MD, Santa Barbara, Dallas, Dynasty, Matlock to NYPD Blue, Cold Case and Castle.

Dumbed Down
The new doctors have to prove themselves, and one does (there’s only so much time in a single episode). Christa’s doing the honors of first getting fired, then coming up with the right diagnosis, to save the day by delivering a baby on the highway. And after all that getting rehired, obviously.
If the pilot is any indication, this show is mostly about the chaos when a ‘code black’ is announced on the board (so everybody knows they have to immediately drop what they’re doing and help out). If it’s medical rush hour for 300 days a year, I’d say why isn’t anyone doing anything about it? Would it really be impossible to bring in more resources, equipment, people? A hospital wouldn’t be pleased with an almost daily code black on its hands, I assume. So how realistic is the show? Well, given it’s inspired by the Ryan McGarry’s documentary of the same name, it should be somewhat accurate, right? Unfortunately, this dramatized version has dumbed down the source material a little too much.

Interesting
That doesn’t mean it’s a bad show. Yet. No one can help rooting for Harden and Guzmán, and the pacing’s well done. But looking beyond the fast cut tos, you have to ask yourself: Is it actually interesting? Well, no. And that’s not much of a surprise, if you think back to the other medical dramas we’ve seen over the years. The least interesting parts of those stories were the actual medical procedures. It wasn’t for nothing that House MD often went to a commercial when they started operating on a patient. I suppose the chaos of Code Black is just that. Chaos. What’s so interesting about that? Let me think about that while I’m giving the show another episode.

Limitless: Pilot

The movie, on which this series is based, which in turn was based on the novel The Dark Fields by Alan Glynn, was alright. Bradley Cooper, Robert De Niro and between them an original gimmick – an experimental pill to maximize your full potential – couldn’t help the film from resulting in a half-baked end result. So is the series adaptation going to work out the kinks and construct a more wholesome story?

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The Highest Goal
To keep it short: yes it does. Limitless, the series, continues the story, including a new leading man and Bradley Cooper in a supporting role. Eddie Morra (Cooper) used to be a struggling writer, but then comes across the NZT pill, unlocks his entire brain, and instead of perfecting his craft, write genius bestsellers, he goes into politics. The message here seems to be the highest goal, or the biggest dream someone, no, a writer could have, is becoming a civil servant. I’d say Eddie wasn’t a writer to begin with.

NZT
The series starts over with another thirty something guy who’s struggling, this time a musician. The singer-songwriter without a band (or any new material for that matter), Brian Finch (Jake McDorman, Shameless, American Sniper). He bumps into an old friend on one of his jobs as a temp, who gives him something to give his life a new direction. When the NZT kicks in, it certainly does just that.

Hipster Quality
Jake McDorman doesn’t look like he could carry the weight of a television series, to be honest. He’s got a certain quality, but more in a hipster kind of way. However, he brings nuance, pace, freshness, likability and accountability to the role. The supporting cast, from what we’ve seen so far, is doing a great job as well. Jennifer Carpenter (Dexter), Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio (Grimm, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves), Ron Rifkin (Alias) and Hill Harper (CSI: NY, Covert Affairs) are excellent, with Bradley Cooper (also ex-Alias) as the biggest draw.

Prologue
Cooper’s agenda isn’t quite clear, yet. He’s had his eyes on Brian, waiting his chance to employ him in some shady business – at least that’s what it sounds like. That’s probably going to be what the show’s about, Brian doing Eddie’s dirty work, whatever that may be, so everything leading up to their first meeting (the death of Brian’s old friend and figuring out who’s responsible, his dad who’s sick and Brian figuring out what it is and what to do about it) is just a long prologue. We’ll have to wait until the second episode to see where all this is actually going.

No Need to Explain
In that sense, the Pilot sets up the show, but it doesn’t set up the story just yet. Maybe that’s why it’s a refreshing episode. Where other pilots almost break their backs over tons of exposition, Limitless doesn’t feel the need to explain a whole lot. The NZT pills, what they do, who made them and why, what Eddie Morra’s doing here, to what extent the FBI is involved; all these questions will no doubt be answered at some point, but now’s not the time. Because of it, the hour flies by. Is this adaptation going to provide a little more depth and substance than the movie? There’s no reason to think it won’t.

3 Lbs: Of Two Minds

A couple of weeks ago, we went down medical memory lane and discussed the pilot episode of the House MD clone 3 Lbs. Was it really as bad as the cancellation after just three aired episodes implied? No, it wasn’t, far from it. So how about the series’ second episode, ‘Of Two Minds’?

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Empathy
Again, the similarities between 3 Lbs and the Hugh Laurie show stood out the most. But Gregory House, despite being an ass, had a sense of humor. The audience easily chose him over Douglas Henson (Stanley Tucci). In retrospect, Doug isn’t such an ass, just very analytical. The empathy comes from newbie doctor Jonathan Seger (Mark Feuerstein). He’s to Doug what Cameron used to be to House. Because the two shows were too much alike, the audience felt like it had to choose. Cranky, cynical dad Gregory, or new stepfather on the block Doug. (Both series airing on the same day also was a very bad move.)

Crossover
Because of time slot, similarity and music score, 3 Lbs didn’t stand a chance. The only way it could’ve survived, maybe, would’ve been to tie it into the House MD universe. A crossover episode of some kind. Highly unlikely, since Doug was on CBS, Gregory was on FOX. Still, it wouldn’t have been a stretch to see them working together on something, or even working in the same hospital, just in different wings. Two of the most brilliant television doctors facing off, I would’ve liked to see that, but that crazy idea will always stay in Hollywood’s ‘never going to happen’ binder. 3 Lbs suffered such a big cancellation blow to the head, there’s no way Netflix would ever consider picking it up out of the garbage bin (and do a limited series starring characters from both medical dramas).

Uniforms
The second episode doesn’t disappoint, keeps the bar as high as the Pilot. Doug even shows his human side a little bit, mostly through quiet smiles behind everybody’s back, but still. Dr. Adrianne Holland (Indira Varma, Ellaria Sand on Game of Thrones) doesn’t have much to do, except some experimental treatment and looking at cops in uniforms. The (neurological) case is a very interesting one. What to do when you’ve got an inoperable tumor in your head, but radiation’s not an option because you’re pregnant and you don’t want to kill the baby?

No Happy Outcome
There’s no happy outcome. From what I remember, House MD used to swing for the fences and eventually cured the patient almost every time. 3 Lbs figures out the best possible solution, but that doesn’t mean everything’s back to normal when the hour’s over. In only its second episode, it’s clear the show’s not afraid to pick the lesser of two evils, as if to say: that’s life.

Left and Right
‘Of Two Minds’ – hence the title – plays around with the fact that the brain’s actually two brains. A rational (left) side and an emotional (right) side – although Doug would never explain it that way; much too simple. These sides communicate with each other, but what happens if you cut that chord – which happens in the show because the patient’s having seizures? The right brain, in charge of the left side of the body, is kept under control by the left brain, in charge of the right side. So what happens if the right, emotional brain is left to its own devices?

The Dilemma
It’s actually a very interesting concept – and probably simplified because, well, this is television. However, the right brain does have a voice. In this case, the exact opposite opinion of the patient’s rational, left brain. There are lots of questions to ask that go deeper than what part of the brain operates which leg. It’s about posing the question which brain side you are, which brain side you want to be, maybe even should be. It’s the century old dilemma of rationality vs. feelings. Objectivity vs. emotion.
3 Lbs, caged inside a procedural format, stays on the surface, but it certainly deserves all the credit for addressing the tip of the iceberg of such a rich philosophical topic.

Stephen Colbert’s First Week on the Main Stage

David Letterman signed off a few months ago, leaving an enormous vacuum, but the show must go on and Stephen Colbert’s been so brave to continue the Late Night brand. This past week was his first ever week hosting a show as… Stephen Tyrone Colbert.

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A New Old Persona
He’d been playing a (variety) show host, presenter, anchor, on The Colbert Report. Accepting the challenge of The Late Show, he had to throw off his Colbert persona and do this thing as Stephen. He himself said there wouldn’t be a big difference, and I guess for him it might not be, but to us, the audience, there is. As we’ve been able to see this week, Stephen is a whole lotta fun now that he’s left his Report behind him (despite doing short Report-like segments on his new show).

Goofy Dance
The show starts with him dancing onto the set. It’s a goofy dance and it doesn’t make much sense. The leader of his band, Jon Batiste, joins him, carrying a melodica/triola around, which doesn’t make sense either. It’s a bit too ‘Fallon’, if you ask me. I mean, have you watched The Tonight Show lately? It’s really gone downhill in the last year and a half. It feels like they try to overcompensate the lack of jokes on that show with sheer silliness. Besides, the one who came up with Fallon and his guests lip syncing to random songs should be fired immediately.
By the way, Stephen and Jon teaming up reminded me of someone who had both their names – well, almost, give or take a letter: Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the 17th century French politician. Just an observation.

Trump
Fallon, even though wishing Colbert good luck in the premiere on Tuesday, brought out the big guns this week and beat the newest player on the block three out of four times. On Friday, for example, Donald Trump stopped by and whenever Trump shows his hair, ratings go into double digits. It’s too bad, although Colbert has no reason to be ashamed of his own ratings. He’s got the better show anyway, the way Letterman had the upper hand against Leno when it came down to depth, truth and empathy.

The Lean-In
Colbert has got a lot of rehearsed segments, but there’s plenty of room for improvisation. He’s quick, open, sympathetic and smart. During the interviews with his guests, he’s truly interested, not afraid to ask questions – an unrehearsed approach, like Craig Ferguson used to do -, but maybe most all: he’s not afraid to be serious. I love the way he leans in when he’s talking to his guests. And his guest choices were great. A few familiar faces, one presidential candidate, the vice president and a few interesting people that aren’t that well-known to the general public. He doesn’t feel compelled to cut the guest off when they’re talking too long. If it’s still interesting, if what they say matters, Colbert lets them speak. Almost all of the other talkshow hosts tend to slip in a joke after ten seconds, because they fear the viewer will otherwise change the channel. Not Colbert. He knows when to joke around, but more importantly he knows when to shut up.

Fresh
The set looks great. Fresh. It feels like Fallon tapes his show in an elderly home, James Corden in his parents’ basement, Seth Meyers in a showroom of interior design, Jimmy Kimmel in a fish tank and Conan O’Brien in the broom closet of a vaudeville theatre. Colbert’s Late Show has got the look of a modern, sophisticated carnival playground.
The main title sequence is great as well. A very slick look at New York City, from far above and from in between skyscrapers. I still don’t know whether it’s a maquette or real – or a combination of both.

Shameless
I didn’t have high hopes for The Late Show, to be honest. I didn’t really like The Colbert Report. Maybe it was too cynical, I don’t know, and when I saw Colbert on other shows he wasn’t funny. Now, he wasn’t unfunny, but if I didn’t know who he was, I never would’ve guessed he was a standup comedian. Or a comedian. Or a presenter of a comedy show. But this week I was pleasantly surprised. Sure, the whole product placement bit in the premiere was shameless, but other than that, the new Late Show with Colbert at the helm could definitely take Fallon’s crown. These are serious times and my guess is Stephen Colbert is the best man to guide America through them. With humor, empathy, intellectualism and sincerity. The era of unpretentious silliness just for the sake of acting silly is over.

3 Lbs: Lost for Words

Sometimes TV series come, take a peek, only to get completely massacred by the ratings. Before you realize the show even exists, it’s gone forever. Swept right off the face of the Earth. Sometimes ratings don’t justify such an early exit. Let’s take a second look at 3 Lbs.

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Watered Down Copy
It’s November 14, 2006. The third season of House, MD is in full swing. In fact, on this very date ‘Son of a Coma Guy’ airs, guest-starring David Morse. For some reason, CBS chooses to blindly challenge the hugely popular Hugh Laurie series with a seemingly watered down copy, called 3 Lbs. It takes the network three weeks to pull it. No one messes around with Gregory House.
The show’s cast isn’t the problem. Stanley Tucci (Margin Call, ER, The Terminal, Miami Vice), Indira Varma (Game of Thrones, Human Target, Luther, Rome), Mark Feuerstein (Royal Pains, Nurse Jackie, The West Wing) and Griffin Dunne (House of Lies, Damages, Alias, Trust Me) (by the way, did you spot the cameo of Nick Offerman?) are top of the bill; no, it must be the concept.

The Concept
Egocentric but brilliant doctor, solving difficult medical puzzles. Sound familiar? Yes, at first glance, 3 Lbs. cheaply plagiarizes House, MD, but take a closer look and you’ll find a pretty damn good show – at least based on the pilot.
The opening scene could easily have been an opening scene of its direct competitor. It’s the scene in which the medical mystery manifests itself. Someone starts to feel funny, faint, bleed or go crazy. In this case, it’s the nail in Hank Moody’s coffin Madeline Zima (Californication, The Nanny, Heroes) who’s unable to control her fingers during a violin performance. Cut to: the main titles.

Teardrop
As if the show was a nineties leftover, the main titles look like they were made with the program Paint on a computer running on Windows 95. Still, House, MD clearly was an inspiration here as well. They did try to modernise the song, although I’m not sure who in their right mind would think Train (with ‘Calling All Angels’) could make us forget Massive Attack’s Teardrop.

Proof of Originality
So, one scene and the leader down, still proof of originality to go. Well, despite the fact the score is also very similar to House, MD’s, the first scene in the hospital makes it clear how this show is different. First of all, the genius doctor Doug Hanson (Tucci) isn’t the main character, it’s his new apprentice (Feuerstein). Where House had a cane and a Vicodin addiction, Hanson suffers from hallucinations. One thing he doesn’t have, though, is a sense of (cynical) humor.

Daughter
Doug does have something House doesn’t: a daughter. Played by another Californication alum: a very young Addison Timlin. It’s only 5 years between 3 Lbs. and seducing Hank Moody, but it’s a difference between day and night, between just a girl and a gorgeous (voluptuous) woman. They grow up so fast.
All plagiarisms aside, ‘Lost for Words’ has a damn fine story. Where other pilots often feel rushed, this one’s completely balanced; it breathes. The characters are interesting, the story of the violinist has a great emotional payoff, there’s some (sexual) tension between Varma – who’s got a special relationship with Doug – and Feuerstein, who’s not only a promising neurologist, but also interested in his patients (so basically he’s Doug’s Cameron) and meditation. And there’s Dunne, the wolf in sheep’s clothing, who’s scheming in the background.

The Newest
By the end of the episode, it’s clear what CBS was thinking: ‘That Fox show has probably run out of steam by the time its third season rolls around, so there’ll be room for a new medical drama, and let’s put them against each other and may the newest win’. I suppose no one could predict Hugh Laurie wouldn’t back down for years to come. But, unjustly, 3 Lbs. only got a lousy three episodes on the air and that’s a shame.