“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 darkness.
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]