Watching the series premiere of CBS’s “Code Black” a few months ago, I said to my wife, “I think I’ve seen everything the medical drama has to show me.” It feels like a genre that’s worn out. We’ve seen enough kids in jeopardy, enough organ transplants and enough troubled doctors to last a lifetime. In an era of breakthrough television, medical dramas almost literally can’t do anything new. And so judging the premiere of one like “Chicago Med” (which begins tomorrow night, November 17th on NBC) comes down to how it works within the clichés and expectations more than how it breaks new ground. There is NO new ground broken here. And yet, like “Chicago Fire,” there’s something that works. “Chicago Fire” is a committed, detailed, underrated production (in all fairness, I’ve spent time on the set and so have a different appreciation for what goes into making it). The “Chicago” shows (“Chicago PD” was the second one) are confident and resilient programs, unafraid of melodrama but committed to craft in ways that people don’t give them enough credit for. In many ways, they are “Comfort Food TV,” delivering us something familiar but satisfying. “Chicago Med” fits in that model snugly.
Executive Producer Dick Wolf (“Law & Order”) and the creators of “Chicago Med” waste no time. While a new trauma center is being presented by Mayor Emanuel, a hot young doctor named Connor Rhodes (Colin Donnell) is on his way to his first day on the job when the train he’s on derails, sending dozens of patients to the center. Like most medical dramas, we meet the cast of “Chicago Med” as they do their work. Rhodes is the rebel character, the guy who sutures his own arm and does whatever it takes to save his patient. Every “Chicago” show has at least two alpha males (who usually butt heads before becoming closest allies), and so Rhodes gets a counterpart in Dr. Will Halstead (Nick Gehlfuss), a more by-the-book trauma surgeon who doesn’t take to the cocky hotshot.
Rhodes and Halstead are ably supported by a dozen or so supporting characters. There’s the Chief of Psychiatry, Dr. Daniel Charles (Oliver Platt), clearly one of the smartest people in the building but accessible at the same time. There’s the head of Chicago Med, Sharon Goodwin (Wolf regular S. Epatha Merkerson); Dr. Natalie Manning (Torrey DeVito), who happens to be in her third trimester as she saves lives; Dr. Ethan Choi (Brian Tee), a tough surgeon; medical student Dr. Sarah Reese (Rachel DiPillo); and a warm and caring nurse named April Sexton (YaYa DaCosta). Add to this overcrowded cast a series of medical cases in week one, including a mother who is a surrogate for a couple who now have to choose to try to save her or their baby, a boy who needs a lung transplant or he’ll die, and all of those train victims.
At times, “Chicago Med” feels a lot like “ER,” another major Chicago hospital drama and a program that doesn’t get enough credit either artistically or for its influence. It has that “ER” pace, as conversations happen quickly and major decisions are made every five minutes. It’s a byproduct of a time in television in which viewers need to be grabbed quickly—and NBC’s new hyperactive drama model—but “Chicago Med” is a little overcrowded with characters and subplots. It’s hard to keep track of everything and every few minutes feature a death or life-saving surgery. It’s the shock and awe approach of dramatic storytelling. It completely sacrifices subtlety, but it’s hard to blame Wolf for wanting to grab his audience quickly.
If that audience sticks around it will be for two reasons. One, the cast here is better than average for the modern medical drama. Platt and Merkerson are the two veterans who ground the piece, while the new young cast, especially DaCosta, DeVito and Donnell have breakout potential. Two, the pacing. Like “Chicago Fire,” “Chicago Med” is a really quick hour of television. Nothing lags, nothing bores, even the familiar. In today’s network TV world, after a long day at work on a Tuesday, just a quick escape to a world of beautiful men and women having much tougher days than we just did can be enough.
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