Black Box shouldn’t be as good as it is. The show feels like a hybrid of “prestige television” ideas—a bipolar main character reminiscent of Homeland’s Carrie Mathisen; neurosurgeons wearing purple scrubs, as in Grey’s Anatomy; and the over-reliance on the protagonist’s “special gift” for solving her clients’ needs, like any number of syrupy legal procedurals, from Judging Amy to The Medium.
But Black Box is using those tropes for a reason—they work. Despite a strong sense that much of this material has been seen before, Black Box offers something novel—a confident, unapologetic character drama. The first few episodes are unafraid of its medical procedural structure while also not feeling too weighed down by it. It has the potential to grow into something stunning, even if it’s not quite there yet.
Chief among Black Box’s appeals is its flawed and charismatic protagonist, Catherine Black, played by Kelly Reilly. Reilly is largely unknown here in the States; she’s probably most memorable for supporting roles in both the 2005 Pride & Prejudice (she played Caroline Bingley) and a bigger role in 2012’s Flight, across from Denzel Washington. Kate Black is a brilliant neurologist, who has been called, by her fictional peers, “the Marco Polo of the brain.” But part of her extraordinary gift with her patients stems from her own struggle with neurological disorder: She’s bipolar, and prone to ignore her medication regimen.
The pilot episode lays out Catherine’s quandary: The bipolar mania she experiences when off her medication is the best feeling in the world, but it encourages her to cheat on her boyfriend and ream out her co-workers at the hospital. She’s able to be unexpectedly brilliant, but not without harming herself or others. It’s hard to leave the pilot episode without rooting for her—and harder still to predict what she’ll do next.
Yes, this all sounds a great deal like Homeland. Black Box even adopts jazzy music to accompany Catherine’s more unhinged moments. But it’s a testament both to the very human screenplay by Amy Holden Jones (whose father was bipolar and a doctor) and Reilly’s devotion to the role that Catherine, like Claire Danes’ Carrie, is an immediately engaging heroine. She’s flawed and at times downright terrifying—but she’s also vulnerable and sympathetic.
Amy Holden Jones, the creator of Black Box, is new to television, but not to screenplays: She wrote Mystic Pizza, Indecent Proposal, and even Beethoven, a movie about a large dog. But there’s a theme: All of her work, including Black Box, hovers between revolutionary and establishment Hollywood. Black Box is still wrapped in the trappings of a standard primetime drama directed at women—the doctors are oddly well put together, even in the middle of the night; Black’s fiancé is far too attractive to be a real person; and, naturally, of all the hospitals in the world, their New York hospital is the one chosen by the military for a complicated, potentially lethal surgery on a journalist wounded in the Middle East who has live ammunition embedded in her brain.
But these are all details, really. Even as Black Box is falling into some of the tried-and-true methods of serialized television, it’s also doing something different. The characters have been considered and fleshed out. In developing the storyline, attention has been paid to how to communicate Catherine’s reality to audiences. The unfortunately punny title also holds a clue to the show’s premise: The brain is still mysterious enough that it is the “black box” of human existence.
Simon Curtis, who directed My Week With Marilyn, directs the first few episodes of the series, and it shows. The direction is more experimental than anything else on ABC as it gets into the heads of the neurologically affected patients, which includes, of course, Catherine herself. In the seventh episode (one of three made available to critics), Catherine sees herself in a black-and-white TV show, repeating the same sentence over and over again. In the third, a woman comes in only able to perceive the right side of her world—the left has disappeared, or in Black Box’s portrayal, turned a blurred-out, disarming white.
Outside of Reilly, the cast’s talent is hit-or-miss. Black’s two romantic interests are relatively two-dimensional, though attempts are being made to flesh them out; her brother, too, is largely wooden. Meanwhile, all the women in the show light up the screen—Laura Fraser, better known as Lydia from Breaking Bad, plays Kate’s conservative, stubborn sister-in-law, and she brings a mulish pout to this series as well as she did to that one. Ali Wong has a bit part as Kate’s radiology technician, but she offers much-needed comic relief.
And most importantly, Vanessa Redgrave is in each episode, as Kate’s longtime therapist. Her sessions with Reilly make Black Box into a show about not just having bipolar disorder but also learning to live with it, transforming it into an accessible, middleweight character drama without heavy-handed monologues or long tracking shots, but not without artistry, flair, or psychological realism.
The character Catherine is most like is not Alicia Florrick on The Good Wife or Olivia Pope on Scandal—it’s Amy Jellicoe, the determined, neurotic, and flawed heroine on the short-lived HBO dramedy Enlightened. Black Box doesn’t have that show’s subtlety, but it’s certainly demonstrated an interest in creating a portrait of a contradictory and flawed, but powerful and engaging female character. Part of the joy of Black Box is waiting to see what Catherine Black will do next.