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TV review: ‘Black Box’ boggles the brain

By David Wiegand
San Francisco Chronicle

Black Box

10 p.m. Thursday, ABC

It’s painful to have to come down hard on “Black Box” because its creator has personal reasons for wanting it to succeed. On the other hand, it’s even more painful to watch, as you'll quickly learn when it premieres Thursday on ABC.

“Black Box” is what neurologists call the brain in order to describe its complexity. The central character of “Black Box” is Dr. Catherine Black (Kelly Reilly), a brilliant neurologist who takes on seemingly incurable cases and either finds cures or figures out ways for the patient to live with whatever their neurological malady may be.

Given the character’s last name, did your mind perhaps go somewhere else when I told you what “Black Box” means?

Well, if it didn’t, good for you. But soon enough in Thursday’s pilot, your mind will go to that other place as Catherine picks up her limo driver after a conference in San Francisco, has wild sex with him and ends up on the balcony of her hotel hallucinating that she’s flying – only to be brought down to, well, not Earth, but the floor of the balcony, by a thunderclap.

Please be assured thunderclaps are relatively rare in San Francisco, but credibility has already made its escape by this point and is fleeing for its life.

Catherine is brilliant even when she’s on her meds, but keeps wanting to free herself from the control and “normalcy” the meds bring. She sees a psychiatrist, Dr. Helen Hartramph (Vanessa Redgrave), the only person who knows she is bipolar. One of the world’s greatest actresses has, for whatever reason, landed in one of this year’s dopiest shows. In later episodes, Redgrave doesn’t even seem to be in the same continent as Reilly, much less in the same room. Were her scenes filmed somewhere else and matched to Reilly’s scenes?

But who could blame her, really?

Black has a loving boyfriend, a chef named Will (David Ajala) who is pressuring her to get married. But she hasn’t told him she’s bipolar and that the type of neurological disorder she has can be passed on to her children. She also has a brother Joshua (David Chisum), who is a husband to uptight, insecure Reagan (Laura Fraser) and father to teenager Esme (Siobhan Williams), who idolizes her aunt. If you know your Salinger, this is Esme in squalor.

Will finds out that Catherine is bipolar when she pounces on him and forces him into a bout of rough sex. He is stunned of course and she has to tell him about the whole bipolar thing, not to mention the whole limo driver thing. He can’t deal with it. She promises she'll stay on her meds and he agrees to work on the relationship.

However, if she wants to skip the meds from time to time to play rough again, he’s not entirely opposed.

There are potentially interesting neurological cases that Catherine deals with. A young man who suddenly becomes a manic artist drawing all over walls, a woman about to turn 50 who can only see things on one side of her field of vision, and a brilliant war photographer who is injured in Syria and transported to New York for a delicate operation that turns out to be even more delicate than anyone imagined.

These moments play like standard hospital drama stories.

The problem with the show is that it doesn’t really know what it wants to be. A medical drama or “Homeland?” It certainly doesn’t have the scripts or performances to be the latter, and there is little plausibility in the medical plotlines because of the overheated and badly written bipolar incidents.

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