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ABC's Black Box Doesn't Live Up to Its House Pedigree

Bob Chipman | 26 May 2014 14:15
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Kelly Reilly in Black Box

A downside to starting up a television column in summer is that there's not actually a lot to cover, at least in terms of new product. These are the months where whatever already worked earlier in the year gets to flex their re-run muscles while original programming becomes the dominion of the replacement series - odd works that didn't have the producer confidence to run in the fall now filling up slots vacated by whatever those confident producers were wrong about.

Such is the case with Black Box, which landed on my radar not because its premise or casting sounded especially novel (a brilliant doctor who doesn't play by the rules, you say??) but because of the near-universality of its bad reviews. To stand out as awful as a summer replacement series, this had to be something special.

It is. Black Box might be the stupidest thing I've seen on TV in years.

The series comes to us from the producers of the dearly-departed House, and feels almost shamelessly like an attempt to pick up right where that series left off: Another brilliant but unstable doctor played by another Brit putting on an American accent (this time Kelly Reilly as "world famous" neurologist Catherine Black) in another medically-skewed riff on the Sherlock Holmes antisocial-addict-as-brainiac-superhero routine. The twist this time? Whereas Gregory House couldn't stop popping painkillers and, since his perpetually altered state frequently afforded him the maverick thought-processes to solve unsolvable medical cases, had little reason to. Dr. Black's problem is staying on medication: She's concealing a serious, lifelong diagnosis of bipolar disorder from everyone but her family and therapist (Vanessa Redgrave).

Unlike House, the show stops short (at least in its early episodes) of directly implying that Black's medical/diagnostic prowess are a direct result of her affliction. Instead, the idea is that she's driven to solve the mysteries of the human brain in an attempt to understand and control her own psychosis... but she's also not-so-secretly convinced that her genius and her madness are inextricably linked, and in the first episode she's introduced after deliberately cycling off her meds to deliver a rousing/rambling speech on her work to a medical conference wherein she (obliquely) compares herself to the likes of Hemingway, Van Gogh and Plath before railing against "normalization" and genius being "medicated into mediocrity."

Ah, good. Exactly what TV was missing: The (literal) redheaded stepchild of Dagny Taggart and Jenny McCarthy. Except Black's egomania and narcissism are meant to be tempered by the idea that she's basically full of crap - the real reason she likes to flush her meds down the nearest available toilet (which, in the logic of this show, seems to itself trigger instant manic episodes) is that she's reverse-addicted to the "high" of mental breakdown. Then again, since Black Box's version of a bipolar "episode" mainly involves spontaneous jazz-dancing, flight-hallucinations and superhuman sexual prowess (I can't yet discern whether the depiction of mental illness here is offensive or merely laughably moronic); why wouldn't she? Well, other than the omnipresent knowledge that she inherited the illness from her mother - whom it drove to suicide.

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