Review: ABC goes to silly extremes with bipolar medical drama ‘Black Box’

If there's been one glaring flaw in this new golden age of TV drama, it's that so much of it has focused on stories of damaged male anti-heroes, without offering us enough equally complicated female protagonists to balance them out. There have been some breakthroughs here and there – the amazing ensemble of Netflix's “Orange Is the New Black” by itself does a lot to balance the numbers out – some shows that stuck around only briefly like “Enlightened,” and some shows that seemed headed for the pantheon before falling short like “Homeland,” but it's an area where TV could definitely stand to improve.

That said, we need good shows about complicated women, as opposed to something like ABC's new “Black Box” (it premieres tonight at 10), a clumsy, pretentious, cliché-riddled mess that just happens to have a woman at the center of things.

Describing the show makes it sound like the sort of thing Jack Donaghy might have scheduled on the “30 Rock” version of NBC: Kelly Reilly plays Catherine Black, a brilliant neurologist who's known as “the Marco Polo of the brain,” and who has somehow kept secret from all her friends, colleagues, and even her long-term boyfriend Will (David Ajala) that she is bipolar, and subject to abrupt, extreme mood swings from manic to depressive. Her name is Black, she tells us that people in her field call the brain a black box, and she is an expert at curing everyone's neurological difficulties except her own! And she frequently refuses to take her medication because she fears becoming dull or, worse, “normal,” which leads her to sleep around, perch on hotel balcony railings while drunk and frequently dance to free-form jazz compositions that only she can hear.

In other words, it's combining what's become the most annoying aspect of “Homeland” with the most formulaic parts of “House”(*) with that tired old saw that Fienberg has dubbed the Vocational Irony Narrative. Oh, and among its regular cast are three British people (Reilly, Ajala and Vanessa Redgrave as Catherine's therapist), one Scottish (Laura Fraser as Catherine's uptight sister-in-law) and one Australian (Ditch Davey as an alpha male neurosurgeon), and all but one of them (Ajala) are apparently playing American, with extremely variable degrees of success with the accent. It's a great big mess.

(*) Among the producers here is “X-Men” director Bryan Singer, who also helped bring “House” to television (and directed that show's pilot). Early promos for “Black Box” played up his involvement, but his name has been scrubbed from all ads since he was faced with allegations of sexual abuse.   

“Black Box” was created by Amy Holden Jones, who gives her characters plenty of pretentious-bordering-on-comical things to say about the many mysteries of the brain. In discussing how she feels when she goes off her meds, Catherine boasts, “My mind grew wings,” and “On the ride home, I became hyper sexual.” (The show is, shockingly, very interested in the ways in which this difficult medical condition only makes its main character sexier.)  She diagnoses the neurosurgeon as a sexual predator, but a colleague defends him by insisting, “But only with willing partners!” (It's an unfortunate line on a half-dozen different levels.)

In addition, through the two episodes I watched, the show is very careful to have Catherine's condition flare up only when it won't impact the various Patients of the Week. For half the show, she's a level-headed genius treating people with exotic conditions that are portrayed through various hallucinatory film techniques, and then the second she leaves the office, she starts cycling through extreme moods. (She will occasionally start dancing in the office stairwell, but no one ever notices.)

There's a lot of talent in this cast. You can easily imagine the young Redgrave playing Catherine, and Fraser (the calculating but neurotic Lydia from “Breaking Bad”) is wasted as the resentful representative of normality, and Reilly's good enough that I can picture her at the center of a version of this show that didn't play like a parody of itself.

Thanks to the network's dependence on a steady diet of Shonda Rhimes shows, ABC has actually been one of the better outlets for complex female characters in the last few years, and I understand how they might have found “Black Box” to be on-brand. But they'd be better off, both in terms of quality and the ratings I expect this new show to pull, by just rerunning the latest season of “Scandal” in its usual timeslot. Anything to avoid more of Catherine Black's dancing.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at