Black Box TV Review – ABC Takes On Mental Health Drama

THE BLACK BOX - ABC's "The Black Box" stars Ditch Davey as Dr. Ian Bickman, Kelly Reilly as Catherine Black and David Ajala as Will Van Renseller. (ABC/Andrew Eccles)
THE BLACK BOX – ABC’s “The Black Box” stars Ditch Davey as Dr. Ian Bickman, Kelly Reilly as Catherine Black and David Ajala as Will Van Renseller. (ABC/Andrew Eccles)

Black Box, ABC‘s latest drama, feels a lot like a show created by committee, and constructed largely by piecing together ratings research of plot and character points. A little bit House, a hint of Grey’s Anatomy, and a heaping dose of the hokey, “we’re calling you stupid,” plot construction of Scandal… et voilà. Of course, if those last two are among your favorite shows, welcome to your new obsession.

Dr. Catherine Black (Kelly Reilly) is the world’s most impressive and important neurologist… or whatever. She’s so cool that she has her own facility in New York City. Known as “The Cube,” it’s all neurology, all the time, and Dr. Black runs the show. But, she has a big secret, and much of her life is spent battling said secret, and trying to keep it, well, secret. She’s bipolar, which would be bad enough on its own, but she also has a long history of going off her meds.

The series kicks off with Dr. Black in a state that doesn’t exactly help the case for skipping medication, which leads to a session with her psychiatrist, played by Vanessa Redgrave. It also moves us into problematic territory with Dr. Black’s boyfriend, Will (David Ajala), who wants things to progress, whereas Catherine finds herself solidly in the “I’m too crazy for a relationship,” camp.

The episodic content, once we’re out of the pilot’s establishment phase, moves through equal parts of Catherine’s life drama, and the wild, neurological disorder (or two) of the week. One side takes us through Catherine’s inability to deal with her own problems, and childhood demons, while the other showcases her ability to treat problems of the mind in a way that even other experts can barely understand. That’s what it says on the box anyway.

In actuality, virtually everything is offered up using the simplest terms, and is layered in pointedly nonsensical drama. Catherine is meant to not only be a genius, but the supreme expert in a certain field, but we never get the impression that she is even completely qualified to work at The Cube, much less run it. She doesn’t say or do smart things, relays information about the “smart things” the show covers as though she Googled it five minutes ago, seems to have gone through a life of figuring out the brain (and being a genius) without putting together a firm grasp on how people operate generally, and worst of all can’t seem to put two and two together in most situations. That is, when approaching her boyfriend, her daughter, the slick, new neurosurgeon, or strangers on the street, her actions and reactions are “girlified” beyond all hope of their being the product of a genius mind, however troubled it may be.

That’s the sort of comment that you’d hope would result in some backlash, but I dare you to string together the argument that suggests that women who are geniuses also act like moon-eyed morons in certain situations… oh, and can’t convince you that they know anything. Besides, the effort would be misguided. While the bipolar disorder gives us our conflict, and leads to strange situations that causes various strains in Catherine’s life, it’s a disorder that, for lack of better terminology given the show’s beliefs about your I.Q., makes you a bit crazy sometimes, not one that renders you rather dim, whether you’re on the meds, or not. The show doesn’t even try to balance Catherine’s personal lapses with something that might show her off at work. In the pilot, her winning move is to order a CT scan, and then notice something fantastically obvious.

Believe me, there’s nothing I’d like more than for this show (or any show) to sell me a genius who is also a woman, and a woman who is also a genius, but this is a show that is only really convinced that you aren’t that bright. It’s a paint-by-numbers affront at its core, and one that aims to relay its motives and efforts simply by telling you how things are. How do you know Dr. Black is a genius? Because she acts like one? No, because we told you she is… over and over. Someone references “Marco Polo of the brain,” at least three times in the first few episodes, largely because, I suspect, we aren’t sure you understand that she is really smart.

A heroine for STEM programs would be an amazing thing, and here is a missed opportunity. As opposed to pushing the episodic maladies, and the rich, wondrous world of being smart, Black Box seems to aim at the idea that geniuses are “people too,” and if you work really hard in school… well, you’ll have a lab coat on, but you’re just as likely to find yourself banging on a door like a lunatic begging to see your daughter.

The other characters are put together in much the same way, with boyfriend Will, and egotistical, womanizing neurosurgeon, Dr. Ian Bickman (Ditch Davey), having come not from a serious examination of character, but apparently from a “Guys are like this,” session. Stereotypes, even rather goofy ones that don’t seem to actually fit the character, are chucked at both men randomly as wacky twists come to mind. At one point Catherine even suggests giving Dr. Bickman the now famous trait test to see if he is a psychopath, and chimes in that, in her opinion, all men are. Yes, even the one she’s dating turns out to be a little odd, and apparently uncharacteristically “dumb guy,” but she’s dating him because… as with everything else, we’ve told you that she is. By the way, Dr Bickman is “redeemed” as not “passing” the psychopath test, because he does something that wouldn’t actually relate to the test at all, but sounds good, and since you are sort of goofy and gullible, it fits our story.

All that said, there are a couple of side characters that are fairly interesting, and there just is no denying that getting a glimpse at some of the fascinating maladies is pretty compelling stuff. Not only is it a case of truth being stranger than fiction, as with the syndrome that has people convinced that loved ones have been replaced with duplicates, the show also plays these characters well, giving some chances at great work by the actors and actresses coming in week by week. That’s a real stretch at digging for a positive, but if the wild world of the human brain intrigues you, you’ll get a look at some cases that you don’t hear about much. Then you’ll look them up and blow your mind when you learn how many people suffer from them.

What’s most surprising about the show is that it obviously has a lot of respect for the people suffering from problems of the brain, even to the extent that it puts forward the less than popular notion of leaving them alone with their problems in the right situation, but it doesn’t have a lot of respect for you… or normals, or people who aren’t convinced that everyone is just reliving High School forever, or something.

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Dr. Catherine Black, world famous neurologist, is at the top of her game. Each week, this beautiful and brilliant doctor will attempt to unravel the mysteries of the brain while hiding her own secret: she’s bipolar. The medical stories are moving, bizarre and a visual feast. The personal stories are riveting. It’s a brand new, cutting edge ABC drama series, “Black Box,” premiering onTHURSDAY, APRIL 24 (10:00-11:00 p.m., ET), on the ABC Television Network.

The twenty-first century is the era of the brain, and this show will be riding that wave on the cutting edge of medicine. The brain is the source of everything — from whom we love to how we act and feel. It is the ultimate mystery, which is why doctors call it, the “black box.” Catherine and the staff of “The Cube” will constantly be challenged by cases never seen before on television. The patients have rare, highly visual, often hallucinogenic and startling conditions, which we will see through their eyes as Catherine diagnoses and treats them.

Dr. Black’s home base is in New York City where she works as the medical director of a state-of-the-art neurological center known as “The Cube.” Inside its modern walls, this complex woman draws patients from all over the world. Outside, she keeps multiple secrets from her family and loved ones. There’s only one person who knows everything — her psychiatrist, Dr. Helen Hartramph (Vanessa Redgrave). Hartramph is intuitive, deeply insightful, and strong, an imposing mentor and mother figure. She’s a touchstone that Catherine returns to weekly for advice, medication and comfort. Meanwhile, Catherine keeps the men in her life on their toes as she is torn between Will (David Ajala), a sexy, handsome new chef with his own restaurant in Brooklyn, and her co-worker, the charismatic, womanizing chief of neurosurgery, Dr. Ian Bickman (Ditch Davey). Will wants love and commitment, but can a free spirit like Catherine ever commit? Bickman’s work comes first and he would never contemplate settling down, at least until he meets Dr. Catherine Black. But what does Bickman really know about Catherine?  Less than he imagines.

Dr. Owen Morely (Terry Kinney), the chief of staff and department chairman of The Cube, is Catherine’s former teacher, current boss and mentor and fellow neurologist – a gentleman to his core. They share cases and mutual admiration. But her closest confidant is within her family circle – her older brother, Joshua Black (David Chisum). Joshua and Catherine are forever bonded by the struggle they shared to overcome a difficult childhood.

“Black Box” stars Kelly Reilly as Catherine Black, Ditch Davey as Dr. Ian Bickman, David Ajala as Will Van Renseller, Ali Wong as Dr. Lina Lark, Laura Fraser as Reagan Black, David Chisum as Joshua Black, Siobhan Williams as Esme Black with Terry Kinney as Dr. Owen Morely and Vanessa Redgrave as Dr. Hartramph.

“Black Box” was created by Amy Holden Jones (“Mystic Pizza,” “Indecent Proposal”). Ilene Chaiken (“The L Word”), Amy Holden Jones, Bryan Singer (“House,” “X-Men”), Anne Thomopoulos (“Oz,” “From the Earth to the Moon”), Oly Obst, Gary Michael Walters (“Drive,” “Bobby”), David Lancaster (“Drive,” Broadway’s “The Bridges of Madison County”) and Michel Litvak are the executive producers. The premiere episode, “Kiss the Sky,” was written by Jones and directed by Simon Curtis (“My Week with Marilyn”). The series is a production of Bold Films Television and is broadcast in 720 Progressive (720P), ABC’s selected HDTV format with a 5.1 channel surround sound.

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Marc Eastman
Marc Eastman is the owner and operator of Are You Screening? and has been writing film reviews for over a decade, and several branches of the internet's film review world have seen his name. He is also a member of The Broadcast Film Critics Association and The Broadcast Television Journalists Association.

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