Photo: Giovanni Rufino / ABC

Black Box Is Quite Possibly The Most Thoroughly Awful Pilot Ever Made

Sarah, one of the few survivors of Commando Nanny, does not make this assertion lightly.

The Black Box screener begins with an introductory title card from the show's creator, Amy Holden Jones, in which she fails to make the premise -- neuroscientist Dr. Catherine Black studies and heals the brain, known to neurologists as "the black box" DO YOU GET IT ARE YOU SURE, while struggling with her own bipolar disorder -- sound like a legitimate concept instead of an Onion headline. The next screen practically dares the viewer to call Jones out on the hack-a-doodle-doo naming convention in the show's title by mentioning Jones's (presumably) late father as her inspiration: "The show has been a great journey for me driven by a passion that is both personal and intellectual. My father was a physician, a cancer researcher, and he was bipolar." Ah. Was he also a piece of shit? Because if he was, then the pilot is a fitting tribute. Otherwise, it's merely a miscast, tone-deaf waste of time.

Every time I cock the hammer on a load of your-show-sucks buckshot, I remember what Vince Gilligan said in Brett Martin's Difficult Men, that even the shittiest hour of TV "was miserably hard to make," and it's tempting to just avert my eyes from a cheap-looking bowl of Exposition Flakes like Black Box until ABC pours it into the trash in a couple weeks. But the show isn't just terrible; it positions itself as an authority on bipolar disorder while depicting manic-depressive illness in a manner so unrealistic, Drew Barrymore pasting magazine eyes on her motel-room wall in Mad Love looks like a Frederick Wiseman joint by comparison. I don't suffer from the disease and I don't have daily or family contact with anyone who does, so what I know about the symptoms and the meds wouldn't fill a thimble, but the idea that a three-med cocktail wears off overnight is not credible. Neither is Dr. Black cycling directly into a manic episode every time she goes off her meds, followed in one case by a depressive episode after she goes back on them -- an episode her so-called psychiatrist also calls "cycling" even though, if she's on the medication, she's not "cycling," because that's the point of it.

The episodes themselves, cobbled together from the worst pop culture has to offer in portrayals of the mentally ill, focus to a mysterious degree on Dr. Black's becoming "hypersexual." This is marginally better than the jazz-scored dance breaks that also characterize her unmedicated mania, although both symptom showcases go on for what seems like weeks, but it's still problematic, partly because Dr. Black has a manic-slut wardrobe reserved exclusively for these flights from believability that appears to date from the episode of Beverly Hills 90210 when Steve's erection lets those chicks steal his 'Vette outside the club he and Brandon can't get into; partly because her long-suffering boyfriend, Will, has to give her an "I would dump you for self-destructing all over our relationship, but I actually enjoyed you sexually assaulting me and I want to do it again" speech at the end of the episode (and speaking of Will: "Van Renseller"? Did you mean "Van Rensselaer," which I just Googled and you could have too?); but mostly because, even when Dr. Black is taking her pills and going to her therapy and listening to Vanessa Redgrave blow philosophical chunks on the nature of genius and madness, she's not likable. It's not Kelly Reilly's fault that a city skyline becomes Van Gogh's "Starry Night" all around her, or that the production couldn't afford an accent coach that didn't make her sound like a Kennedy cousin. She didn't write the pouty "I get it, this time I get it" dialogue swearing she'll stay on her meds this time (spoiler: she doesn't) that makes the character sound fifteen. But Reilly's acting choices and default pouty boo-boo-kitty affect do nothing to get us on the hero's side here. Her big confession scene with Will veers between snotty challenging tone and spank-me-daddy purring, and it's fucked up at best. I didn't care for her bitchface in the Sherlock Holmes movies and it's even less useful here.

Reilly ought to send Ditch Davey a caviar basket, because the Bane's Big Book Of Growled Line Readings foolishness he's laying down as neurosurgeon and cocksman Dr. Ian Bickman is so amateurish, she looks like a Yale Drama fellow, but Dr. Black is impossible to like no matter what Reilly does. The writing makes her a ridiculous Mary Sue -- viz. Terry Kinney, presumably her mentor, telling her with a straight face, "You surpassed your teacher long ago; do what you think is best" -- and lingers lovingly on her special Nut Whisperer bond with her brain-tumor patient, but it doesn't show her actually doing much neuroscience, just asks us to believe that a woman who will dump her meds twice just in the pilot somehow got through med school, wrote books plural, and is one of the top one hundred neuros in the country. We're also asked to root for her relationship with her "niece," Esme, who is also her daughter, of course, even though Dr. Black undermines Esme's adoptive parents, her brother Josh and his arugula-sandwich-snack-making wife Regan, with her cool-aunt-ics. Towards the end, Dr. Black is freaking shit that she's not allowed to see Esme after her latest manic period, and Regan comes out onto the front porch to rip into her all "I raised her, so it's me she hates because I set boundaries, while of course irresponsible does-whatever-she-wants Katie is her favorite, so how about you FUCK OFF TWICE" and it's the only nice moment in the entire pilot; that show, about the responsible and unthanked one contending with a sister-in-law/bio mom who's a hot mess, as acted by Laura "Lydia Rodarte-Quayle" Fraser? That I would watch.

This? Is unrelatable. This thinks "the tumor will grow, so will the pain, and you will die in agony" is how doctors speak to patients about their diagnoses, and that Dr. Black would have to explain to the surgeon, who is looking at the x-ray, that the tumor is in a delicate spot. This fetishizes the self-destructive and melodramatic aspects of mental illness, but has absolutely nothing new to add to the way we understand it (the Blacks' mother filled her pockets with rocks and walked into the sea, because I guess nobody but Jones read Kate Chopin in college OR HAS HEARD OF VIRGINIA WOOLF for the love of beer and fucking skittles). This thinks it can just use another take from a scene we just saw in a flashback, and it's fine. This buries JD Williams and Fraser in half-dimensional roles, shoots a scene with Teenage Dr. Black wailing "JOHNNY DON'T LEAVE ME THIS IS YOUR BABY TOOOO" in the rain, has a licensed do-no-harm medical fucking doctor whine that stopping a patient's hallucinations (which of course involve a little person, the ultimate in lazy '90s shorthand for the surreal) didn't really help her, and never does tell us what really happened after Dr. Black gave her slurry shock speech at the conference.

This is a dingily lit, bathetic, poorly researched, tin-eared, derivative affront to the mentally ill, the vertically challenged, and speakers of English. Box it up TO GO PLEASE.

Readers liked this episode
What did you think?


Explore the Black Box forum or add a comment below.