Oh boy. Guys, I do not know what to do with Black Box, ABC’s new medical drama. (Yes, the show is about neither airplanes nor experimental theater; yes, its protagonist’s last name is “Black”; yes, this is a titling convention that must be stopped immediately.)
When its logical left brain is in control, Black Box is an utterly conventional, thoroughly dull entry in the over-saturated “Insufferable Genius” genre. But when the show’s crazy right brain takes over, it’s a jaw-dropping, over-the-top campfest with true potential to fill the Smash-sized hole in your (read: my) heart.
Neither version is good, per se, but one is at least interesting. Which, though, will prevail in the long run? Let’s examine the show’s chart (medical reference!) to find out.
The Protagonist: Catherine Black (Kelly Reilly), a crazy/beautiful/brilliant sexmonster who practices medicine in her spare time. (She’s earned the nickname “the Marco Polo of the brain,” whatever that could possibly mean.) Sherlock Holmes is a genius detective, but also a cocaine addict; Dr. Gregory House is a genius diagnostician, but also a painkiller addict; Catherine is a genius neurologist, but also bipolar. Well, actually, she’s sort of uni-polar: In the pilot, we see plenty of manic episodes characterized by sexy sex-having and extended, Carrie Mathison-esque jazz freakouts. We don’t really see Catherine get depressed, though — possibly because downs aren’t as hot as highs.
Oddly enough, the weirdest part of Catherine’s condition isn’t her slurry mania voice, or the fact that it apparently has no adverse effect on her job. Instead, it’s that somehow, nobody outside of Catherine’s immediate family seems to know she’s bipolar… even when she’s, say, bombing an enormously important speech in front of hundreds of people because she’s off her meds. Some might roll their eyes at this contrivance; I think it’s hilarious. Verdict: Right brain.
The Supporting Cast: Mostly straight out of Central Casting. There’s Nice, Perfect Boyfriend (David Ajala), Jerk Doctor Catherine’s Going to Sleep With Soon (Ditch Davey; seriously, guy’s name is Ditch), Supportive Brother (David Chisum), Supportive Brother’s Less Supportive Wife (Laura Fraser), Hipster Radiologist (Ali Wong), and, somehow, Vanessa Redgrave, who plays a psychiatrist I desperately hope turns out to be a figment of Catherine’s imagination. Anything to liven up this snoozy bunch. Left brain.
The Case(s) of the Week: Since the pilot has to do quite a bit of scene-setting, we don’t get much time to spend with Catherine’s patients. The ones we do meet: A compulsively drawing young man who seems schizophrenic but is actually suffering from a brain tumor, and an old, demented lady whose only friend is an imaginary elf — named Yojo — she’s been hallucinating. They’re both fairly by the book, except maybe the elf…and I feel too bad for Reza Garakani, the poor actor who had to suffer the indignity of wearing a Santa’s Little Helper outfit, to grade this as “delightfully wacky.” Left brain.
The Dialogue: Pretty cliché-ridden. Catherine rails about all the creative geniuses who also happened to be mentally ill; Vanessa Redgrave points out that many of them also ended up killing themselves at a relatively young age. There’s also a lot of eyeroll-inducing stuff when Catherine’s in the middle of mania: “I can hear music!” “My mind grew wings!” And then there’s this exchange, which is so brilliantly awful that it belongs in some sort of hall of fame: “He’s a sexual predator.” “So I hear. But only with willing partners.” What?! Draw.
The Questionable Nutritional Info: At one point, Catherine notes that her brother is eating a bag of chips filled with “gluten, empty calories, [and] salt.” Wait, since when do potatoes contain gluten? No brains at all.
The Jazz Dancing: There is so, so much of it. Right brain all the way.
The Twist: Like every female TV character of roughly reproductive age to appear in a drama, Catherine has a secret in her past involving a pregnancy. In this case, it’s that she had a kid when she was young; in a reveal that’s actually handled well, we eventually learn that her child is Esme, who’s been raised to believe that Supportive Brother and Less Supportive Wife are her parents. So we’ve got, what, seven episodes before Esme discovers the truth and starts to fear that she’s going to go crazy too? Left brain.
Okay, so maybe Black Box has less cheese potential than I was hoping. Still, I’m sort of amazed that something can be this boring and trainwrecky all at once — and I’m fully committed to watching at least a few more episodes, just to see if the show ends up going completely off the deep end. That’s reason enough to keep tuning in, right?