May 2, 2014

THE SKED Pilot + 1 Review: “Black Box”


BLACK BOX:  Thursday 10PM on ABC

A lot can happen between the creation of a TV pilot and the production of regular episodes: writer/producers may be hired or fired, audience focus groups weigh in, networks and studios (which may have had their own turnover) give plenty of notes, helpful and otherwise, and critics start to rear their ugly heads. Tone, pace, casting, and even story can change. Here at THE SKED, we’re going to look past the pilots and present reviews of the first regular season episodes as well.

Previously… on BLACK BOX:  Dr. Catherine Black (Kelly Reilly) is a brilliant neurologist who happens also to be hiding her bipolar condition from almost everyone in her life, even though her propensity to stop taking her meds can make her symptoms dangerously obvious.  These include a hypersexuality that expresses itself with whatever men happen to be around, whether or not that includes longtime boyfriend Will (David Ajala)–including womanizing colleague Bickman (Ditch Davey)–which would be a bigger problem if Will weren’t somewhat turned on by it.  Her only confidant is her psychiatrist Dr. Hartramph (Vanessa Redgrave).  Catherine’s other secret is that her “niece” Esme (Siobhan Williams) is actually her biological daughter, but because of her reckless behavior, Catherine’s sister-in-law Regan (Laura Fraser), who’s raising Esme with Catherine’s brother Josh (David Chisum), won’t let them have contact.

Episode 2:  Nothing improved in Black Box‘s second episode.  Written by series creator Amy Holden Jones and directed by Simon Curtis, it again gave us a procedural story in the foreground (this time, a nanny whose hallucinations included the repeated belief that her head had exploded) for Catherine to solve when no one else could.  The patient turned out to have narcolepsy and and several other conditions including something called “exploding head syndrome,” which is a real thing–but the unintentional comedy highlight came when Catherine, who had repeated the patient’s denials that she was on drugs for three-quarters of the episode, finally looked inside her purse, and promptly found a container of cocaine just sitting there.  Catherine also found time to reunite her mentor, ostracized for hiding his brain tumor from colleagues and causing the death of a patient when he had a seizure while performing surgery, with the old man’s estranged son, magically preventing the mentor’s suicide when she happened to be thinking of her own mother having killed herself at the same moment that he was taking an overdose.

Meanwhile, of course, Catherine’s own condition continued to cause problems.  Her sessions with her shrink (which are so hermetically sealed from the rest of the show that it would just barely be a surprise if it turned out the psychiatrist was a figment of Catherine’s imagination) didn’t yield the increase in her meds she requested, so Catherine bought–but, this being primetime network TV, didn’t actually smoke–some joints on the street.  Will decided he was less thrilled with her hypersexuality when she disclosed that she’d had sex with another man while out of town on a business trip, while her relationship with Bickman was unsteady since she’d basically thrown herself on him while manic, and regretted it once back to her senses.  (Even though he’s an expert on brain syndromes himself, he suspected nothing.)  Catherine also had to endure missing Esme’s audition for a prestigious music school, although Josh kindly played it for her life over the phone (prompting Catherine to do some of her public free-form jazz dancing, this time apparently only in her imagination).

Black Box seems to have no idea how silly it is, which is a staggering feat of denial.  The suicide rescue scene in this week’s episode alone was high comedy, and the dialogue is so baldly expository that the actors might as well read the stage directions too.  Reilly is a fine actress, and no one dares blame Vanessa Redgrave for cashing a steady paycheck after 5 decades of often astounding work, but no one comes off looking very good here, and the prospects for improvement seem close to nil.

The series barely held on to half of its Grey’s Anatomy lead-in rating last night, and while that actually left it competitive in the low-rated Thursday 10PM slot, there’s no reason to think it could hold its own without Grey’s as protection.  It’s on ABC’s air to fill the gap caused by the season’s short Scandal order, and will likely disappear once it’s run out of episodes; its prognosis, like its quality, is grim.

ORIGINAL VERDICT:  Change the Channel

PILOT+ 1:  In Need Of Heavy Meds

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."