TV Review: ‘Black Box’

"Black Box" TV review on ABC

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.

TV Review: 'Black Box'

(Series; ABC, Thurs. April 24, 10 p.m.)


Filmed in New York by Bad Hat Harry and Bold Television.


Executive producers, Amy Holden Jones, Ilene Chaiken, Bryan Singer, Anne Thomopoulos, Oly Obst, Gary Michael Walters, David Lancaster, Michel Litvak; co-executive producers, Laurie Arent, Gary Lennon, Merrill Karpf; producers, Kelly Reilly, Jason Taylor, Jeffrey Stott; director, Simon Curtis; writer, Jones; camera, Donald Thorin Jr.; production designer, Lester Cohen; editor, Gregg Featherman; music, Olivier Manchon, Clare Manchon; casting, Deborah Aquila, Tricia Wood, Julie Tucker, Ross Meyerson. 60 MIN.


Kelly Reilly, Ditch Davey, David Ajala, Ali Wong, Laura Fraser, David Chisum, Siobhan Williams, Terry Kinney, Vanessa Redgrave

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  1. Singrobin says:

    This is just wrong, they need to reconsider bringing it back. i am so dissapointed, I was so looking forward to the new season of Black Box, mainly because it was built on true stories. It need to come back on, it help us the public to understand the complexities of the brain, and identify maybe some of the problems people have.

  2. carin cuddeback says:

    I love the blackbox! People have to realize it’s not a documentary and probably shouldn’t be a reference for brain surgury or even mental illness but it keeps me on the edge of my seat. Sorry to see it go,probably to be replaced with a “reality” show that I definitely will not watch

  3. Rayann Keyes says:

    Finally a TV show that depicts the real life of a bipolar. If you’re not bipolar there’s no way you could understand it let alone be competent it able to review this show. Poorly done and ignorant review.

  4. anytime small minded people disagree with another’s opinions they resort to childish name calling.

  5. Joe says:

    anytime TV takes a chance on a show that”s completely different, peanut brains can’t take it, all they want is an typical boring formulaic show

  6. Cindy says:

    Tried to like it. Won’t waste anymore time.

  7. Marilyn says:

    The worst show ever! She’s a terrible actor and the story is ridiculous. Total waste of perfectly good air time.

  8. Ro Sherman says:

    I HAD to finish the first episode, I love the Pain! What a pathetic waste of time. A brilliant Physician who doesn’t take meds? Sure. So brilliant she think’s she’ll be Normal? sure. Well, it is night time drama no? Not believable, poorly written. Glad I have a zillion other choices to watch!

  9. Bea says:

    Had to comment this show Sux horrible acting by a lead actress great supporting actors but the lead just kills it….

  10. dbsdhif says:


  11. SS says:

    This is the worst show ever!

    • j;lkaiansia says:

      Way to mimic ‘Homeland’ and ‘House’. This is absolutely, horrifically STOLEN conceptually. There is always an authentic chance that the ‘collective unconscious’ had a hand at this, but most likely not. AVOID!

  12. sajones1955 says:

    I HAVE bipolar disorder (I am NOT bipolar any more than someone IS cancer or IS arthritis). This show perpetuates the stigma and misconception of bipolar disorder and all mental illness. Many people are high functioning even when not medicated as their are different degrees and manifestations of the disorder. Especially disturbing is the idea that one flushes their medication and immediately becomes a psychotic manic lunatic. Nor does one suddenly become “normal” because of a conversation. Bipolar is a chronic progressive condition. It is also manageable if one takes the proper medication and accepts responsibility for their own mental health. People who don’t comply with treatment often stop taking their meds and eventually return state of hypomania, mania or depression. This depiction is totally unrealistic and does a great disservice to those who cope with this disorder every day.

    • Lynnda says:

      ABC and Reilly’s lack of sensitivity and ignorance about bipolar disorder and mental illness is right up there with Miley Cyrus mocking Sinead O’Connor and the thousands of people suffering from intrusive thoughts, unhealthy urges, and mania or depression symptoms. Is there going to be no apology for this reckless show and media abuse either?

  13. VON YAITSO says:

    does Reilly have to grimace like Diane Keaton to assure she looks like her ?…

  14. Broadwayfan says:

    I had DVRed this, just hadn’t watched it yet. Glad I read this review and comments. Now I can delete it and forget it. I tried RAKE once. That’s an hour of my life I’ll never get back.
    So on Thursday at 10 I can concentrate solely on Holmes and Watson.
    That’s an hour well spent.

  15. Terri says:

    This is a pathetic show that has so placed bipolar disorder in the wrong light….Seriously, if you are going to publicize bipolar disorder, please do it with honesty and true medical knowledge. For those that are following their treatment plan, bipolar is a non-issue. Why publicize the wrong when individuals that think they have it are looking at this and saying, “oh no, that is not me”! The show was disgusting to me and what a poor misrepresentation it has portrayed to the public. Make it right by discontinuing it immediately!!!

    • Kat Brooks says:

      What was the network thinking endorsing this type of show? In the first 5min, we listened to “a freaking rocket ride” of suicidal references and a ridicule of dysfunctional behaviors that actually mock certain audiences who truly may have suffered (or are now suffering) from depression and anxiety or who know someone who may have even acted negatively as a result of triggers like this. We exited the show, deleted it immediately, and then had a long talk with a family member who was clearly upset by this content. I love Vanessa Redgrave and was excited to see her again, but this show is shameful.

  16. Kelly says:

    I was looking forward to this show from the previews, but I was sorely disappointed. Kelly Reilly isn’t such a good actress; however, even if she were, it’d be difficult to pull of this script that seems to want to integrate every type of mental illness and doctor/hospital life stereotype possible. I’ll probably watch 1 more time, but it better be faaaar better than the pilot.

  17. Kathy Stallo says:

    Phenomenal show!! I had a bi polar mother. You have opened the door to the awareness of mental illness. Fantastic

  18. Lawrence LEVITAN says:

    I found the show quite enjoyable and quite true to life despite the bad reviews. I intend to watch for (hopefully) a long while

    • E. Apthome says:

      What a mess! What dreck! What a total train wreck and even ABC cannot be so desperate as to continue this beyond its pilot. Cancel it immediately and here’s why: 1) The central character is supposed to be brilliant. But she isn’t a woman of even average common sense or intelligence (to say nothing of her totally broken moral compass). Any human being with even an ounce of self-awareness and other-concern would NOT foist herself onto others as a physician; she cannot even manage herself and her own life or care, so how (and why) would she be placed in a position to manage the care and harm the lives of others? Any patient unfortunate enough to be assigned to messed-up Catherine is to be pitied; it is simply an inappropriate and unfair patient placement. (And other MDs in a real hospital would have this walking disaster before the review board and out the door so fast your head would spin. She’d have to be working out of her home office, largely out of view, in a real life metro area – so lol ABC) 2) This is a very derivative, thin, tawdry (emphasis on tawdry) and threadbare ripoff of “House” but without the restraint. House was a misanthrope with his medical and conduct issues, but even he limited his dalliances to his female boss with no triangulations. After just one episode, with total-mess, clichéd and uninteresting Catherine already dangling herself between two men and the misogynistic sex addict theme figuring prominently, the viewer in ribald humor can only wonder if “black box” is a double entendre on Catherine’s nether parts as well! 3) The pilot was totally disjointed, jumping here and there, this and that. Many viewers are too smart for this. There are not enough distractions on screen to distract from the central fact: This is a cobbled together, been there seen that, derivative and piecemeal hodgepodge of mess, poorly organized and mindless drivel. Cancel this dreck asap. ABC would do better with even another low-budget reality show. Five of five thumbs DOWN rating. A stinker.

  19. MG says:

    Black Box is an absolute, awful train wreck. My SO is bipolar and I have a very good friend that is also bipolar and this show’s portrayal of the disorder is horribly inaccurate and absurd. You don’t stop meds then 4 hours later immediately go off on a manic tirade then show up perfectly normal at your neurological Dr job and cure a patient a day later. Awful, awful awful….

    • Gale Bennof says:

      I agree with you. My friend has been compliant with her medicine since she got sick at 19, or else she couldn’t work at all. One has to be stable to work at any job.

    • E. Apthome says:

      Right you are MG. This Black Box show is a total train wreck and utterly absurd. ABC should send Black Box into a black hole asap.

  20. Hstevens says:

    This show was awful! No entertainment value! Ignorant, reckless, and absurd portrayal of bipolar.

  21. Nicole says:

    The show may not be perfect by Variety’s standards, but as someone who struggles with this disorder and suffers from the stigma it still unfortunately has, I really hope it finds a way to be more successful than your projections. Even though it’s likely that the disorder won’t be portrayed too precisely, every single case of bipolar disorder is individualized and significant and it’s important that it gets more acknowledgement than the occasional Law and Order reference or news story, such as Rizzoli & Isles’ star Barry Frost’s suicide resulting from bipolar depression.

    • Liz says:

      I agree with you Nicole. We are going to watch tonight with an open awareness. Every case of bipolar disorder and other disorders is individualized. Everyone has their own unique walk of life. We will be glad to get a perspective of this. Thank you

      • Nicole, I could not disagree with you more! I feel this show is a tragic injustice to those of with any mental issue and will set back many of society’s views by at least 30 years! I am not easily upset or insulted, But I find this so offensive it turns my stomach! The WORST thing on TV in my opinion

      • Liz says: I saw it after I posted the last comment and I couldn’t believe the last 30 minutes. I have a friend with bipolar and the recklessness (having casual sex, then right after having sex with her boyfriend) that was portrayed in the last part of the show Black Box wasn’t necessary. Seemed like they were throwing the sex addiction card or something too. I thought they should have focused on the way that one’s mind might be thinking a certain way that another’s isn’t. I did like how they portrayed one of her patients that was seeing fire and it really wasn’t there…it gave me a sense of what my friend sees that I don’t. My friend who has bipolar doesn’t have those kind of fire delusions… I don’t think ….but she does perceive people don’t like her when they really do like her.
        I was excited to see ABC came out with a TV show about bipolar so I can understand my friend better. Those with loved ones suffering through mental illness need a show based on the brain so that there is an awareness.
        Basically I hope the next episodes don’t focus on her erratic sexual behavior because it made it seem like she had a bit of sex addiction along with some symptoms of bipolar for the first episode. The episode did provoke a conversation with my husband concerning my friend so that was good. I will give the show a try next week and see where the plot goes.

  22. John Shea says:

    “…The intoxicating impulse to go off her meds.”

    As if her ‘meds’, actually powerful and dangerous drugs that happen to be legal if prescribed, were not intoxicating in themselves! When is someone going to make a movie or series about the havoc wreaked by psychiatric drugs, incarceration, shock therapy, and lobotomies?

    And it’s human comprehension that is beyond the brain, not the other way around.

    • MG says:

      I agree that psychiatric meds are powerful stuff and far too easily prescribed these days. I’m no fan of big pharma but I am witness to how a properly prescribed medication can change a person’s life for the better. I lived through 15 years of hell with a bipolar partner not getting any help and then misdiagnosed by general practitioners (as depression) and given the wrong meds. My partner was finally diagnosed correctly with bipolar 8 years ago by a psychiatrist. She was weaned off all her meds and put on a single mood stabilizer and it was like night and day. She became functional and the manic/depressive cycles disappeared after about 6 weeks (she was a rapid cycler).

      The real key I believe is to get the correct help & diagnosis. GP/family doctors are not well trained to diagnose psychiatric disorders but they they do anyway instead of doing referrals and prescribe pills like candy which can make things worse.

    • E. Apthome says:

      John Shea makes an excellent point and it would be great if many Americans slowed down long enough to consider his wisdom. The healthcare and so-called mental health industries (emphasis on “industries” – this is about money, ego and power now, and less and less every year about patient care) appear to be in a downward and negative-outcomes spiral due to the outsized influences of junk scientists and Big Pharma with their self-serving theories and other-poisoning toxic pills. There are some who are frankly mentally unwell and of course they need and deserve help. But there are far more who are simply too easily led by the propaganda that is intended to separate them from their money, human dignity and self-determination. What far more need are loving and intact families, caring friends, the economic certainty of reliable employment and the sanity of a time-tested value system – NOT poison pills, medical industry “processing” followed by “warehousing.” Most are viewed by industry as simply consumers, not patients, certainly not human persons, in these money-grabbing and power-grabbing anti-health schemes today, so it is “buyer beware”. Do not be a mindless consumer. And don’t hesitate to get a second opinion prior to any pill or procedure or treatment.

      • johntshea says:

        My second paragraph should have read:-

        Over just the last few decades psychiatrists HAVE largely given up on healing emotional distress or even ‘curing mental illness’, reducing THEIR goal to ‘managing’ symptoms often caused or exacerbated by the regimes of life-long drugging they now favor.


      • johntshea says:

        ‘…A downward and negative outcomes spiral…’

        Indeed! Over just the last few decades psychiatrists has largely given up on healing emotional distress or even ‘curing mental illness’, reducing its goal to ‘managing’ symptoms often caused or exacerbated by the regimes of life-long drugging they now favor.

        Hollywood could critique that as it has critiqued other evils, but I can remember no such critique since ‘One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest’ and ‘I’m Dancing As Fast As I Can’, about forty and thirty years ago, respectively.

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