“Black Box” is an awful title for a not-much-better show — another “physician, heal thyself” drama, in which bipolar disorder becomes a license to flights of visual fancy and periodic bouts of overacting. The series will inhabit an ABC Thursday lineup that, admittedly, has gotten considerable mileage out of over-the-top characters and situations (see “Scandal”), with Kelly Reilly playing a neurologist grappling with her own mental-health issues, studying “an organ so complex it is beyond human comprehension.” The same might be said, less portentously or charitably, regarding what ABC saw in this overwrought drama.
Perhaps appropriately, Reilly makes the leap to TV and “Black Box” from movie roles in, among other things, “Flight,” although the order of business here is brains, not planes. (It’s unfortunate that the title of the show — a reference to the brain — has been in the news so constantly in connection with the missing Malaysian Airlines flight, but that’s beyond the series’ control.)
Producer Bryan Singer was also part of the team behind “House,” and “Black Box” bears some similarities to that earlier show in concept, if not execution. Reilly’s Catherine Black is a brilliant researcher and clinician, but as the pilot makes clear, she’s operating with a very thin safety net, especially if she indulges the intoxicating impulse to go off her meds.
Catherine discusses this struggle with her therapist (Vanessa Redgrave), and her potential to backslide is complicating her relationship with a perfect boyfriend (David Ajala) who has just popped the question. The premiere also introduces a womanizing surgeon (Ditch Davey) who seems cobbled together to fit every medical-drama stereotype.
Reilly is certainly an interesting actress who embraces the more eccentric aspects of the role, but Catherine’s fertile mind makes her mood-swings jarring, and the procedural element — in the cases she’s presented each week, abetted by a stock and colorless team of fellow scientists — don’t provide enough heft. (That they are based on fact does little to invigorate them.)
About the most distinctive thing the show has to offer is the jazz-infused score from husband-and-wife team Olivier and Clare Manchon, but that’s hardly reason to get onboard.
ABC has already witnessed once this year how fast its Thursday numbers can crater when “Scandal” takes a breather, and that show’s truncated order due to Kerry Washington’s pregnancy will only heighten pressure on “Black Box” to at least keep the lights on. The network’s indecipherable marketing campaign for the show, incidentally, doesn’t promise to help with liftoff.
Put it all together, and “Black Box” simply isn’t worth seeking out. And if the series hits turbulence, in this case, it won’t require a team of investigators to ascertain what went wrong.