April 25, 2014

THE SKED Series Premiere Review: “Black Box”


BLACK BOX:  Thursday 10PM on ABC – Change the Channel

In ABC’s (partial) defense, BLACK BOX wasn’t intended to run during the regular broadcast season.  It was meant to be seen in summer, when standards are lower, but the network was caught flat-footed when Kerry Washington’s pregnancy caused Scandal to cut its season by 4 episodes, and it made sense on paper to substitute a medical drama aimed at women into the post-Grey’s Anatomy slot for the last month of the network year.

Unfortunately, Black Box is awful well past the point of unintentional comedy.

Black Box is the latest iteration of the ever-popular Genius With Dark Secrets genre (see:  House, Homeland, Elementary, Nurse Jackie, Rescue Me, etc).  In this case, the gifted actress Kelly Reilly (she played the drug addict befriended by Denzel Washington’s character in Flight) is Dr. Catherine Black, a world-famous neurologist who, like Carrie Mathison on Homeland, isn’t just bipolar, but has a propensity to stop taking the medication that keeps her under control.  Although she’s frequently off her meds, and within hours of missing a dose she becomes a cartoon crazy person who dances through hospital stairwells, teeters on high balconies and has frenzied sex with any male who crosses her path, the show would have it that none of her co-workers even suspect her problem, and neither does her serious boyfriend Will (David Ajala).  Also, she’s tortured by the knowledge that her mother, from whom she inherited the disorder, committed suicide when she was a child, and by the way, her niece Esme (Siobhan Williams) is actually her biological daughter, being brought up by her brother Josh (David Chisum) and sister-in-law Regan (Laura Fraser, Walter White’s tightly-wound co-conspirator in the last seasons of Breaking Bad).  The latter storyline appears to be the trope of the season, also currently afflicting the FBI agent on Crisis.  The “black box” of the title is the way Catherine refers to the human mind, and of course to Dr. Black’s troubled head as well.

The pilot script, by series creator Amy Holden Jones, is a morass of expository dialogue and over-the-top set-pieces.  Catherine starts the episode by telling her psychiatrist (Vanessa Redgrave, probably only needing to work one day per episode on a single set and cashing 13 steady paychecks) all the details of her latest bender, which occurred when she was in San Francisco to address a distinguished medical assembly, including the aforementioned balcony escapade and sex with her driver.  Then she reports to work, where she’s the only one to figure out that her newest patient isn’t schizophrenic, he just has a brain tumor.  There’s much lofty talk of Van Gogh, Melville, Sylvia Plath, Hemingway, and other brilliant talents who suffered from mental illness and might not have created their works of genius if medicated, and although Catherine acknowledges that most of them ended up prematurely dead, she can’t stand to temper her brilliance with medication.  (When his brain tumor is removed, her patient stops drawing his striking, disturbing portraits.)  Things don’t get easier when Will proposes marriage, or when womanizing neurosurgeon Dr. Ian Bickman (Ditch Davey, who wins the 2014 award for having a real name that sounds more like a fictional character than the one he’s playing) joins the hospital staff.  Luckily, Will is turned on by her manic sex episodes, and doesn’t seem to mind too much that they’re not always with him.

It’s Jones’s fault and not director Simon Curtis’s that the show’s main visual conceit is depicting the hallucinations of Catherine and her patients oh-so-literally (one of the latter has an imaginary elf companion, whom Catherine is wise enough to leave unerased by medication, so the woman will always have a friend with her) which results in ludicrous imagery.  With material like this, there’s very little chance of modulation, and although Reilly is an arresting performer and Redgrave quietly controls her scenes with off-hand expertise, mostly it plays as soap opera silliness.

The broadcast networks used to take the summers off, airing reruns and the occasional cheap import, but now cable has taken over the off-season with numerous and often high-quality shows, and the inroads they make every year are no longer reclaimed in full when the networks return in September.  Even in the new world of summer TV, Black Box would be a waste of airtime, and in the high-pressure space of May sweeps, even if it’s there for reasons of circumstance, it’s an embarrassment.



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."