I am not a TV snob. I watch a good deal of HBO and Showtime programming, but I can get equally sucked into good old network programming like The Blacklist and The Voice. I’ve even shared a Kardashians marathon with my daughter and (shame, shame) enjoyed every minute.
I have too much respect for myself, however, to get sucked into Black Box, ABC’s new drama about a brilliant neurologist with bipolar disorder. I watch television for entertainment and escape. Black Box makes that impossible because just about every scene makes me want to throw something at my TV.
Let’s start with the main character, Doctor Catherine Black, played by Kelly Reilly. Black is a neuroscientist and director of a big-deal neurology research center with a big secret. She has bipolar disorder and, from the looks of it, her psychiatrist (who I’m sure is also brilliant and is played by Vanessa Redgrave) has probably inked “Bipolar Disorder I with psychotic features” into Catherine’s chart.
Black has a fondness for going off her meds, believing she does her best work when manic. She skips her drug cocktail and almost immediately she’s higher than a kite, sexing up cabbies and coworkers, dancing in stairways, or swinging around a lamppost screaming at passersby how brilliant she is and they are not. All of these episodes are accompanied by some of the most annoying jazz I have ever heard and I’ve heard a lot of really annoying jazz.
Not just brilliant, Black is also lucky. Her highs resolve as quickly as they begin. And thank goodness she has a brother who loves her, else how would the paramedics who respond to his 911 call know to give Catherine haloperidol to calm her agitation. Black gets the generic; the makers of Haldol don’t seem to be sponsoring this show. If I ever need an anti-pyschotic, I’ll be sure to support their decision and ask for the name brand stuff.
Those paramedics are not alone in their ignorance. Back at The Cube—everything has a nickname in this show, including the big deal neuroscience institute—only Dr. Black and the new hotshot neurosurgeon—whom she (of course) screws during a manic episode—are allowed to be brilliant. Everyone else, from nurses to medical technicians, is an incompetent boob who cannot be trusted. Just to make sure we understand that Black is not just brilliant, but compassionate, we’ve got her patients’ word. “You’re the only one who understands me.”
I’ll buy that someone with bipolar I can be a big deal doctor at a big deal research institute; Kay Redfield Jamison is. But I’m not buying that a doctor of that caliber would repeatedly skip her meds. In an interview on The View, Reilly and Redgrave give us a little insight into Black’s character: she’s been in treatment for bipolar disorder since she was 16 and she’s addicted to her mania. I can understand wanting to be a little hypomanic now and then. But I know the price I’ll pay is as high as the building Black nearly jumps from because she thinks she can fly. Still, I’m supposed to believe that a brilliant doctor who has been in treatment for probably twenty years and is prone to psychotic mania will skip her meds? Not a chance in hell. Overwhelmingly, bipolar patients skip their meds because they just don’t think they are sick. Catherine Black knows what she’s got and what it does to her.
Reilly references Jamison in justifying Black’s hiding her disorder, noting that Jamison kept her condition secret for years. True, Jamison kept her condition secret from her co-workers, but her supervisors were aware of it from the beginning.
Being bipolar isn’t the only secret Black is hiding. Piling harmful stereotyping on top harmful stereotyping, the writers have given Black a daughter. Yes! Black got pregnant in her teens and birthed a beautiful girl (too soon to tell if she’s brilliant). Alas. Black’s brother and his wife are raising the daughter, named Esme, because, of course, people with bipolar disorder can’t be good parents. Never mind that caring for their children is a significant motivator to treatment for many parents with bipolar disorder.
But that’s not all! Even without the stereotyping and perpetuation of harmful myths about mental illness, Black Box would suck because, well, it just sucks. The storyline is predictable, the characters are cartoons and—worst of all—the dialogue (“When I’m manic, I do bad things. Bad, bad things.”) could have been written by my 11-year-old daughter. Frankly, she’d probably do a better job; she has a far clearer vision of bipolar disorder and those who have it.