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Review: 'Black Box' stumbles through a dark dance with reality

Kelly Reilly stars as Dr. Catherine Black, a brilliant neurosurgeon who is bipolar and prone skip her meds.

"House" meets "Homeland" and goes dancing with "Grey's Anatomy" on the new ABC "medical" drama, "Black Box," a show so deeply flawed and absurdly derivative you will wonder if you, like the main character, are experiencing a manic episode.

Kelly Reilly stars as Dr. Catherine Black, a predictably brilliant and beautiful neurosurgeon who is also bipolar and prone to go off her meds. Like "Homeland's" Carrie Mathison and Dr. Gregory House, Black believes there is a direct relationship between her abilities and her disorder. Why would she constrict the brilliant rocket ride of her chemically challenged brain?

Or so she asks her therapist, played, in an absolutely unforgivable bit of casting by Vanessa Redgrave, whose exquisite gravity offers "Black Box" its few heart-breaking glimmers of hope. Then Catherine opens her mouth and the loony tunes show cranks up again, complete with a sax-heavy soundtrack and many scenes of Dr. Black dancing to the tune of her own madness.

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Yes, indeed, there will be dancing.

At the core of "Black Box" and the bipolar plot line of "Homeland" and the many other shows in which a character's brilliance is accompanied by addiction or mental disorder are very real and pressing questions. If a person in need of treatment rejects it, is this a choice or just manifestation of the illness? What creativity and other extremes will be lost in the pursuit of "normalcy"? And, even more narratively tantalizing, at what point does personality end and diagnosis begin?

Unfortunately, "Black Box" is so simplistic in its presentation of these issues (for Catherine, a day off her meds mostly means hot sex against walls with strangers and, of course, dancing) that the only issue it raises is why so many television executives these days seem convinced that intelligence is linked to mental illness.

As if the irony of a famed brain doc with an inflamed brain weren't enough, Catherine's life is riddled with the kind of narrative conflict that comes with Too Much Lying. Her colleagues, who include a guitar-playing radiologist (Ali Wong), a womanizing super-surgeon (Ditch Davey) and a bow-tie wearing chief (Terry Kinney), don't know she's bipolar, nor does her so-perfect-he's-a-chef boyfriend Will (David Ajala).

Her brother Joshua (David Chisum) does, of course, because they were both raised by a similarly afflicted mother (seen far too often in Sylvia Plath flashback) and because Catherine needs someone she can call when her med-free dance steps take her to the wrong neighborhood. He's also in on Catherine's biggest secret, which anyone with two eyes can see a mile away but I will resist spoiling here.

According to creator Amy Holden Jones, this mendacity-pocked life makes Catherine a super-terrific doctor, empathetic and open-minded, able to reach the unreachable, etc. None of which, by the way, is shown with any conviction in the first three episodes. Catherine may borrow freely from Carrie and House — at one point, she even utters the line "everybody lies" — but she has neither of their humanity or brilliance.

All she has is Redgrave, who mostly serves to remind us that it isn't crazy that makes art, it's talent and skill.

mary.mcnamara@latimes.com

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'Black Box'

Where: ABC

When: 10 p.m. Thursday

Rating: TV-14-LS (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for coarse language and sex)

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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