Friday , May 24 2024
Does ABC's 'Black Box' treat mental illness too lightly?

TV Review: ABC’s New ‘Black Box’

“Normal is overrated,” so might say Black Box‘s Dr. Catherine Black, the protagonist of ABC’s newest scripted drama series. That is…if Dr. Gregory House hadn’t coined the motto first.

I’m not sure why, but primetime television really seems to like delving into the world of troubled genius these days: NBC’s Hannibal digs into the mind of FBI profiler Will Graham and his relationship with his psychopathic psychiatrist Hannibal Lecter. TNT’s Perception‘s neurologist Daniel is a paranoid schizophrenic who helps out the FBI, and although he’s not officially a profiler, it is sort of what he does, although Perception is nowhere as compelling as Hannibal dive into the mind’s heart of box

Although Will Graham originates from the pen of Robert Harris and the novel Red Dragon, the presence of such emotionally unstable anti-heroes on primetime television might claim Dr. Gregory House as a godfather of sorts as well. One of his mottos was   House had a whole constellation of psych symptoms: from narcissism to attachment disorder. But he was a genius doing profiles of his own–they were not criminal, however; they were medical.

Which brings us to Black Box. Geniuses, whether profilers, physician, scientists or poets are often very far from our conventional understanding of “normal.” And Black Box has its share of damaged geniuses, particularly its main character Dr. Catherine Black (Kelly Reilly), director of enter for Neurological Research and Treatment, (AKA The Cube), and her chief of neurosurgery Dr.Ian Bickman (Ditch Davey). Black struggles with being bipolar, and the medicines she must take to control it to remain functional in her high-powered position.

I’ve read several reviews of Black Box, and like the rest of the media, I’ve seen three episodes: the pilot, then episodes three and seven. The reviews are almost uniformly negative, calling the series a trivialization of the mental disorder. Black’s condition is supposed to make her empathetic to her patients, much like House’s experience both with life-threatening illness and a bad experience with the medical establishment make him (despite his protestations) the fiercest of advocates for his. Black Box’s pilot episode has a strange pacing, going from calm to frenetic, highs to lows, but without symmetry. And wonder if that’s intentional–mimicry of Dr. Black’s condition.

I don’t quite get the appeal of the sex-god surgeon, who seems to make all women faint at the mere presence of him. Unless, the idea here is to contrast his undiagnosed symptoms: messiah complex, delusions of godhood, extreme narcissism (and that’s just in the pilot).

Unlike some of my fellow critics, I found Black Box to be worth a chance. I like the series take on “normal” and its benefits. Is it, for example, beneficial to destroy the delusion of an elderly, isolated woman who “sees” little people, when by putting her on meds, and stripping her of her only companion, hallucination though he may be? I do have to call a medical error here, though–the source of the elderly woman’s visions. My own mother suffered such hallucinations in her last years, but they were not dementia, nor any mental disorder. They were caused by a urinary tract infection (UTI), and odd as it sounds, hallucinations are often the only symptom of a UTI in an elderly patient. So, I was mildly annoyed by the fact that the medical team does not consider UTI as cause of her symptoms.

The other thing that bothered me about the episodes was that the illnesses seem too cut and dried–to easily diagnosed and treated. Happy endings all around (except of course for Dr. Black). I understand, I think, the point of giving Dr. Black’s patients happy medical endings; everyone gets a resolution, but her resolution–her happy endings are all vicarious. She derives satisfaction and redemption from the outcomes of her patients.

In addition to the conflict in her professional life, Black’s personal life is a mess. She has a nice-guy lover, stunned to learn of Black’s conditions and certain aspects of her off-the-meds personality. Black’s niece, a vivacious teenager who looks more like her aunt than she does her mother, is placed in the middle of family conflict. Black’s only real friend seems to be her older brother, who raised her after their mother (who also suffered from bipolar disorder) committed suicide.

Does Black Box treat mental illness too lightly? After all, Dr. Black seems to soar when she’s off her meds, and she has a history of non-compliance. She hates the meds because they take away her edge, which she believes is necessary to be the best in her field. But is she right? The series does not in any way suggest that her assumption is in any way correct. She goes off her meds and there are serious consequences, as her psychiatrist (played by Vanessa Redgrave with appropriate gravitas) admonishes.

So, is Black Box worth a look? Or is the latest vain attempt to replicate what made House, M.D. brilliant television? It’s not House, which was a unique combination of vision, consistently excellent writing, and the performance of an actor in Hugh Laurie, who really understood the character from scene one of the pilot. At this point, the Black Box cases are predictable, but interesting, and I’m curious about where the series is headed.

The series was created by Amy Holden Jones, inspired by her father, a respected cancer researcher, who struggled with bipolar disorder his whole career. But whether the series will, in the end, honor him or trivialize the condition that plagued him, is still up in the air.

I realize how ambivalent I sound in this review, and it’s because I’m not sure myself, whether the series will live up to the promise of its premise. Black Box has a long way to go, but its early days. I’d suggest for now that you take in an episode or two, and decide for yourself whether it’s worth the journey.

Black Box airs Thursdays at 10:00 p.m. on ABC.

[amazon template=iframe image&chan=default&asin=B00CWIMY3O,B00IOZUCO2,B008P9M614,1550229559]

About Barbara Barnett

A Jewish mother and (young 🙃) grandmother, Barbara Barnett is an author and professional Hazzan (Cantor). A member of the Conservative Movement's Cantors Assembly and the Jewish Renewal movement's clergy association OHALAH, the clergy association of the Jewish Renewal movement. In her other life, she is a critically acclaimed fantasy/science fiction author as well as the author of a non-fiction exploration of the TV series House, M.D. and contributor to the book Spiritual Pregnancy. She Publisher/Executive Editor of Blogcritics, (

Check Also

Whiskey Cavalier

ATX TV Fest: ‘Whiskey Cavalier’ – Making Espionage Fun Again

The stories involve the world of international intrigue, spying, and inter-spy-agency competition.


  1. Finish posting the rest of the review and maybe we’ll keep reading.

  2. I am a physician with Bipolar Dis. Type II. I find Kelley Riley’s take on bipolar disorder spot on. The limitless energy, exeileration, and hypersexuality of a manic rush are accurately portrayed. The phases of bipolar illness are usually assymetric with more time spent in depression that mania. I agree that Dr. Bickman’s messianic, Lothario surgeon is ridiculous, but I known two surgeons, just like him. Regarding the ease of diagnosis and good outcomes: a man over 20 with new onset seizures has a brain tumor until proven otherwise. A C-T scan proves the diagnosis. If the tumor is benign and surgically accessable, removal is usually curative. Finally it’s refreshing to see Vanessa Redgrave play a psychiatrist who isn’t crazier than her patients.

  3. I am no physician, but I have lived with bi-polar disorder for over 40 years. It’s no picnic! As John Doe, MD states…the portrayal of the manic side of this disorder and the thought process about taking medication is “spot on” and it’s about time. Silver linings playbook was such a disappointment! I am extremely sad to see so many unkind and critical reviews. I think in large part because those people just DON’T GET IT or they think it’s exaggerated. Let me tell you, it’s NOT! Perhaps the storyline needs a little work, but when I watched the pilot the other night, I cried because it hit so close to home. The euphoria, the stupid careless impulsivity, the promiscuity, the choice not to have children for fear of passing on this craziness to a child (or feeling trapped or abusing/neglecting it). There have been times I have thought about walking out into the ocean to end it (like her mother did) and at the time felt perfectly sane. I am looking forward to (and recording) the rest of the season!