Friday, April 25, 2014

Pilot Review: Black Box

Black Box (Thursdays at 10:00 on ABC)

With Kerry Washington pregnant, ABC had no choice but to cut Scandal's episode order for the season short. They must be kicking themselves right about now, cursing the personal life of their star for leaving them with few options for May sweeps programming, save for the pretentious, muddled medical drama Black Box. Not only have they traded down in the ratings (the pilot of Black Box delivered less than half of Scandal's finale audience the week before), but they've also tonally shifted in the opposite direction from guilty-pleasure to no-pleasure.

Catherine Black (Kelly Reilly, currently on the big screen in Heaven Is for Real) is a world famous neuroscientist with a secret: she is bipolar. No one knows about her disorder, except for the family she is very close with following her mother's suicide and her psychiatrist (Vanessa Redgrave). She's somehow kept her illness from her co-workers, colleagues, and even her long-time boyfriend (David Ajala), whom she cheats on in the series' opening scene after going off her meds. Her reasoning is that she works better uninhibited and freed from the chains of anti-depressants, citing some of history's most famous crazies as proof that genius can't be tamed (all of whom, by the way, killed themselves: Hemingway, Van Gogh, Plath, etc).

It's a flimsy setup for a really annoying series. Black Box is like a combination of Homeland, with its mentally ill female lead going on and off her prescription, and House, with its rare disease medical procedural angle. In other words, the creators and producers of this show took the most uninteresting parts of two popular shows and put them into one uninteresting show. The general concept of a flawed anti-hero female lead is one that needs to be fleshed out in a television series; we have enough Walter Whites and Don Drapers and John Houses out there, and we could use a complex female character in the mix. And I think that's what Black Box was going for, but it falls supremely short. It's an exercise in pretentious self-importance. Writer Amy Holden Jones (who hasn't written a screenplay in over fifteen years, since The Relic) and director Simon Curtis have tried to purposefully make Black Box esoteric and, put simply, weird. The first few frames are illusions within hallucinations within flashbacks, featuring Catherine speaking to a non-existent crowd of peers and attempting to fly off a hotel balcony. With the constant freestyle jazz underscoring, it's like a cross between 40's noir and 70s camp that doesn't come across well at all. There are several moments when Catherine is characterized as eccentric, including one late in the pilot when she stops everything and dances up and down a hospital staircase rather than prepping her patient for surgery.

I also just feel like Catherine is crossing a line between anti-hero and idiot. As a neuroscientist, you'd think she'd understand the risks associated with her own illness. Yes, you may feel free when you stop taking your meds, but you're also putting your patients in danger when you become unpredictable and volatile (and sexually insatiable, apparently). Like... when going off your meds causes you to run barefoot through city streets and swing from lampposts babbling about how you "hear music" because you are "special to God," maybe you shouldn't be focusing on other people's mental problems but instead fixing your own. It's hard to feel the necessary empathy for Catherine because she's just a selfish asshole without many redeeming qualities as of yet. At least if she'd done something weird and funny or absurd, it would be easier to accept and like her. But Black Box takes itself too damn seriously, especially in regards to Catherine's mental state and her relationship with her illness. The show wants us to look seriously at mental illness, but if Catherine doesn't take her bipolarity seriously, why should we? If she doesn't care about herself, why should we care about her?

No one involved in Black Box is up to answering these questions. From Reilly's obnoxious and over-the-top central performance to the casting of a Redgrave as the voice of reason, Black Box is aware of how seriously it takes itself and its subject matter. Unfortunately, it doesn't take its characters or plot as seriously and ends up being a mess of serious content presented stupidly and humorlessly.

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