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

Bob "MovieBob" Chipman | 26 May 2014 18:15
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Black Box on ABC

The drama is supposed to come mainly from watching Catherine brace against the secret-keeping necessitated by her predicament: If her coworkers and underlings at The Cube (a state-of-the-art neuroscience research hospital) were to discover her illness, she can be fired and even prosecuted... but her job is both an outlet and cause for her stress-triggers. She's worshipped as the "cool aunt" by her niece... who doesn't realize that Catherine is actually her mother (her "parents" are the doc's older brother and his uptight wife). She's only just recently revealed the full scope of her problem to her impossibly perfect long-term boyfriend - whose version of reassurance is to reveal that he actually enjoyed her busting into his house and sexually-assaulting him during an episode timed to drive him away - and is now tempted by the attentions of a handsome knuckle-dragging alpha male of a neurosurgeon at work.

The conflict, meanwhile, is supposed to come from her being constantly - wait for it... of two minds about her own work, to the point where you wonder if the showrunners actually know that that's not what "bipolar" actually means. She knows her job is to cure patients of neurological affliction, but she clearly also believes that some, like her, might be better off "mad." In the pilot, she's allowed to split the difference by acknowledging that a troubled young man's inexplicable newfound compulsion for surrealist graffiti is the result of a brain tumor, but also to determine that a lonely elderly woman is better off not being cured of the company of her imaginary Christmas Elf friend, Yojo.

I get the sense that Black would be an insufferable lead character no matter what (at least Greg House let the other characters expound on his genius and the necessity of enduring his eccentricities) but Reilly's performance is awful on the level not usually seen outside of parody - have you ever seen someone do their "awesome" Nicolas Cage impression? That's pretty much her version of "unhinged" here. I can't actually tell if she's a good actress or not (her most recent noteworthy turn was in the execrable Heaven is For Real, where her character name might as well have been Applepie Amerimom) but based strictly on Black Box one would have to conclude that she's at best a legendary ham.

The rest of the cast vacillates between forgettable and cartoon caricature, most egregiously in the case of the surly, sexually-aggressive surgeon who's exactly one eyepatch away from a soap opera knave. The cast's big show-off "get" is, of course, theater legend Vanessa Redgrave slumming it as Catherine's therapist/maternal-surrogate. It's a nothing "look who we hired!" role, or at least it seems to be thus far - since I haven't seen her interact with or even be acknowledged by the other characters yet (and since it makes little sense, even for this show, that a medical professional would actually keep Black's "I'm practicing medicine while flying-high on self-induced bipolar meltdowns" secret) I'm getting the sense she's meant to be revealed as a figment of Black's imagination at some point down the line. Likewise, I'm having trouble imagining that the secret-daughter subplot exists for any other reason than for "Uh-oh - does she have it, too?" to come up as a tension-builder down the line.

Not that I expect them to get very far down the line. Black is a spectacularly unlikable lead, the mystery-of-the-week ailments so far would feel like House's reject pile even without the producer connection and "which inappropriate location will Kelly Reilly dance around like an idiot in this week" isn't really a compelling reason to keep watching. Fans of bewilderingly awful TV (or writers looking for a handy "don't" checklist for depicting mental-illness responsibly) should check it out while they can though - it's not like there's much else to watch this time of year.

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