REVIEW: “Black Box”

When I saw the commercials back in March for ABC’s new show, “Black Box,” I was immediately intrigued. I tend to hone in on TV shows or movies that feature mental illness as one of the main character’s features, because if the show is done well, it’s a breath of fresh air and a pleasure to watch. But, if the show is a train wreck and rife with inaccurate stereotypes, then I also like to be aware of it so that when people inevitably reference it I can be ready to smack down their misconceptions. A.K.A., I like to be prepared when the morons come knocking.

Character DevelopmentThe Good, The Bad, And The Ugly

The main character in “Black Box” is Dr. Catherine Black, played by the talented Kelly Reilly, and is portrayed as a vibrant and brilliant neuroscientist who has bipolar disorder. Dr. Black works at “The Cube,” a facility dedicated to treating neurological disorders. The show never came out and said she has bipolar 1 disorder, but based on her exhibited extreme symptoms I would hazard a guess that the character falls into that category. She has a tendency to go off of her medications, which causes her to swing rapidly into a manic phase where she is hyperactive, hypersexual and hears music, to which she waltzes through the streets dancing. After the mania manifestation, she slowly sinks down the other direction into depression, until her no-nonsense therapist convinces her to get back on her meds. Catherine’s therapist, Dr. Hartramph, is played by the fantastic Vanessa Redgrave! Dr. Hartramph is a kickass therapist who is the only one in the whole show, so far, who knows all of Catherine’s secrets. As such, she’s only a phone call away when things get rough and she’s already had to talk a suicidal Catherine down, and we’re only six episodes in. What could possibly happen in the next seven?

Catherine’s fiancé, Will (David Ajala), is a talented-but-ordinary chef that cooks lovely food and gets to be the victim quite frequently in the show. That is, except for the time he had sex with a hostess at his restaurant as revenge for Catherine having sex with an unknown man, in the first episode, when she went off her meds. Not the most original character, although the writers clearly tried to make him more interesting by having him “all of a sudden” realize that he liked kinky sex. I think that shocker wasn’t that shocking and was just a ridiculous shot at adding depth to his character.

Dr. Bickman (Ditch Davey), on the other hand, is the handsome, cavalier and equally intelligent co-worker that is constantly tempting Catherine with promises of more “stimulating” conversations than she could glean from her boring chef fiancé. During one of Catherine’s moments when she was not on her meds, she and Dr. Bickman had a fling and ever since then he can’t get her out of his mind. He’s rather ruthless, and frequently overlooks people’s emotions, but can be pulled back in line by a well-timed quip from Dr. Black.

Catherine’s family consists of her older brother, Joshua, and his wife, Reagan. Together Joshua and Reagan raise Catherine’s daughter, Esme, as their own daughter because Catherine couldn’t take care of Esme at the time of her birth. Esme is currently unaware of this connection, but she and her “Aunt Catherine” are fast friends and get along extraordinarily well. This annoys Reagan, and I think the family situation is supposed to be intriguing, but really it just makes Reagan look petty.

Kelly Reilly’s character is nuanced, beautifully developed, and one quickly grows attached to her from the very first episode. But, one of my primary issues with this show is that there is a noticeable lack of development of the other characters in the show.They generally come across as shallow and petty, and I think that it tends to impede the character of Catherine Black from fully blossoming.

Development of the Story Arc

The show started out so strongly, and even though we’re only coming up on episode seven, I already feel that the storyline is getting weaker. The Catherine and Esme conundrum is kind of interesting but it just ebbs and flows, and is easily overrun by whatever The Cube’s patients are dealing with in any one episode. As it is, I wouldn’t be surprised if the show isn’t renewed for another season. I tend to think of “Black Box” as a weak imitation of TNT’s show, “Perception,” which is quite disappointing after all of ABC’s build up.


If there is any one thing in this show that people rave about, it’s the soundtrack. Check into Twitter during the show’s airtime, and you’ll see people exclaiming about it, but rarely about the actual story being presented. The music is quite delightful, as it incorporates some lovely smooth jazz that can be either lively or the mournful background to somebody kicking the can.

Portrayal of Mental Illness

The show’s portrayal of mental illness thus far has been vaguely appropriate, although there are clearly some areas that have been dramatized. For example, one night Catherine doesn’t take her medications, and the next thing you know she’s manic, and then one breath later she’s depressed and having severe suicidal ideations. In reality, it is quite the rarity that it wouldn’t take several days for a psychotropic medication to get out of an individual’s system. Even if Catherine has rapid cycling bipolar 1 disorder, where the manic and depressive phases can fluctuate relatively rapidly, the facts don’t exactly add up in those instances. I also think that it would have been helpful for the writers to at least acknowledge that there are some different manifestations of bipolar disorders, and that not all of them are this extreme or exhibit the textbook symptoms.

Another aspect of an episode that really irritated me was when a manic Catherine ends up having a bit of kinky sex with Will one night. She is all apologetic for being rough with him, and insists that she’s not normal and he should go be with a “normal” gal. But, Will consoles her by attempting to illustrate how “abnormal” he is by saying that he actually really liked the kinky sex. I’m sorry, but just because an adult likes something other than vanilla, missionary-position sex doesn’t mean that they have completely flown off the normal curve or that they struggle with anything remotely close to a mental illness. I mean seriously, let’s be sex positive here, shall we?

The writers paint all of the other mental illnesses paraded across the screen as colorfully as they do Catherine’s bipolar disorder, and it can be a bit disconcerting. I’m all for raising awareness of the reality of mental illness, and this show has some REALLY great quotes that hit home hard and fast for people of the cray club. But, what the majority of this show exhibits is not reality, because no one would tune in to watch a show like that. But you know, they have to draw people in somehow, and nothing does that quite like a brilliant, beautiful, crazy woman on primetime television.

Don’t take just my opinion on “Black Box!” What do you think? Let us know on Twitter @litdarling!

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