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The Real Reason Code Black Was Canceled

One way or another, every network medical drama lives in the looming shadow of ER, but CBS' Code Black was the rare series that actually met the high bar set by the NBC classic in the '90s. Set in an understaffed, overcrowded emergency room in Los Angeles, Code Black's title is the code used when a hospital staff is overwhelmed by the sheer number of patients. As a result, each episode was at once adrenaline-fueled and deeply emotional, which made it all the more shocking when CBS axed the hospital set drama after three seasons in May 2018.

From a quality standpoint, Code Black was top notch. Between the constant action in the ER and the talented cast that included Rob Lowe, Marcia Gay Harden, and Luis Guzmán, the show never failed to be gripping TV. Unfortunately, it simply couldn't find a big enough audience to justify a season 4 renewal. In terms of CBS' ratings, the drama only performed better than Scorpion (which was also canceled in 2018) and Elementary, as reported by TVLine.

But while the audience was small, Code Black's fans were a passionate bunch. CBS continued airing season 3 through the summer after announcing the show's cancellation in May, and TVLine reported that it never wavered in the ratings. Code Black's consistency very nearly saved it — CBS continued to explore the possibility of reversing its cancellation decision into the fall, but ultimately the network couldn't find a way to bring the show back that made sense from a fiscal standpoint.

Code Black series creator Michael Seitzman wrote the season 3 finale to serve as a series finale

There's really no silver lining to a good show getting canceled, but fans should be comforted by the fact that series creator Michael Seitzman designed the season 3 finale to serve as a series finale. While he wanted the show to return for a fourth season, he shared with Deadline that he was well aware that Code Black was on the bubble at CBS, and he was determined to bring the characters' arcs to a satisfying conclusion. That's why Harden's Dr. Leanne Rorish made inroads in adopting her foster daughter in the show's final moments, and why Willis (Lowe) and Rox (Moon Bloodgood), as well as Mario (Benjamin Hollingsworth) and Noa (Emily Tyra), ended up together.

According to Seitzman, the biggest piece of the puzzle was always about giving Leanne a chance to process the grief from losing her family and move forward. "The rebuilding of Leanne was the first North Star for me," he told Deadline. "Ariel, played pitch-perfect by Emily Alyn Lind, gave us a destination for Leanne. We knew that the effort to adopt her would be the road we'd be riding on and I knew the end of this season (and likely the series) would take place in a courtroom, where Leanne would not only espouse her own philosophy of medicine, but also the creative philosophy of the show, that it isn't enough to survive, you have to have something to survive for."

Season 4 of Code Black would have found the doctors relocating to a new hospital

Even though Seitzman suspected that Code Black wouldn't return, he still used the season 3 finale to seed a potential fourth season. Due to the damage from the plane crash, the doctors and nurses of Angels Memorial would have moved to a new building in season 4, and that move would have affected each of them in different ways. The showrunner shared with Deadline that he actually got the idea from the Ryan McGarry documentary of the same name that inspired the series.

"When the staff was moving from the old LA County Medical Center to the new one, it shook them up in a very particular way," he said. "In a way, there were ghosts in that old building that they found they needed and those ghosts didn't exist in the new building." Having the extra space would have fundamentally changed how the doctors dealt with patients, and it would have presented a new creative challenge for the series as Code Black's central premise of being a medical show set in a constantly overcrowded hospital evolved.

Sadly, Code Black was unable to find a new home after CBS decided to end the series, leaving the move to a new hospital one story that fans will never get to see.