For a show about the mind, ‘Black Box’ surely lacks imagination. On the surface it’s a procedural following the professional and personal life of neurologist Dr. Catherine Black, however it quickly and unfortunately becomes a familiar and eye-rolling tale of sex scandals, office romance, gossipy co-workers, and poorly-executed exposition.
The twist here in this hour-long drama is that Dr. Black, who is lauded as the Marco Polo of the brain (the brain is known as "The Black Box," and her name is Black, get it?!), is bi-polar and has kept this her little secret. That means that in the pilot, she is recounting a story with her psychiatrist (Vanessa Redgrave) in which she goes off her meds, hallucinates, has passionate sex with a random guy, and then comes down hard afterward.
Kelly Reilly is the titular Black, a luminous, graceful presence who unfortunately is subject to typical television, well, boxes. While apparently impressively capable at her job, she is awkward and mostly hopeless when it comes to love. She has fortunately found a patient, caring boyfriend in a handsome chef (David Ajala), but she lies to and cheats on him, acting petty then mature then petty again.
While the personal side of things is contrived – she also has a combative sister and adoring niece, and that’s its own little story with an utterly predictable twist – the professional world is generic at best and completely absurd at worst.
Part of it is the presence of Dr. Ian Bickman (Ditch Davey), a suave, cocky, ladies man of a new neurosurgeon who oozes creepiness, solicits publicity, and loves to be the rogue. You watch him cartry on just waiting for Davey to wink at the camera, but he never does.
In one ridiculous instance, he chastises a fellow doctor during a surgery using the show’s favorite word, "douche bag." The surgeon in turn storms out, leaving a patient at risk. It’s not until others tell Bickman he shouldn’t do anything that he does something. “It’s only childbirth, not brain surgery,” he retorts with a line that may or may not have been the reason for the entire scene.
It seems too that all the men Dr. Black encounters professionally look down at her or just disagree with how she works. She's regarded as too headstrong and too emotional. The only ones who look up to her are young women, but that’s because they need to be taught.
I suppose though it’s all meant to be played as this smoky, surreal romantic saga, as for reasons unknown, a jazz soundtrack underscores every scene in this soapy melodrama. The drama is absurd while the comedy, what little attempts there are, feel forced. Reilly could definitely act the part of the sultry lounge singer, and she could too be a world renowned neurologist – she just doesn’t have the material.
Much of the time is spent oscillating awkwardly between the personal and personal, regressing and rehashing the same stories. What’s more it’s blatantly egregious how poor the exposition is, as writers fabricate the most artificial of encounters to explain new characters, diagnoses, or procedures to the audience.
Despite a compelling lead actress and a simple framework that could allow for some interesting stories that could serve to inform and elucidate mental illness, ‘Black Box’ is another series about a brilliant yet plagued doctor that clashes with colleagues while saving lives. It’s that, and it also wants to be a series about torrid romantic affairs, but that doesn’t work either.
“You’ve only seen one side of me; I can be such a bitch,” Black tells her boyfriend early on in the pilot when he asks her to marry him. It’s one of the many overt, dumb-downed phrases in a show that spells everything out to the audience.
It is accurate though, as Black does show various extreme sides to her personality. If only the show had anything under its surface that was as compelling.