Putting Mental Illness In A Black Box

Esther Breger criticizes ABC’s new medical drama “Black Box,” about a neuroscientist with bipolar disorder, for perpetuating the trend of treating TV heroes’ mental illnesses as superpowers:

Catherine, the medical director of a fancy neurological center known as the Cube, is apparently amazing at her job, and “Black Box” doesn’t hesitate to draw a connection between her genius and her illness: “Catherine has an insight into her patients that no one else has, allowing her to communicate with them on a different level,” according to ABC’s press notes. She’s fabulously empathetic and intuitive, somehow able to see what all the other doctors miss (though her cases should be familiar to anyone who reads Oliver Sacks’s essays). That’s because, the show keeps reminding us, mental illness goes along with greatness. …

The show’s particular absurdities are all its own, but “Black Box” is part of a long line of fictions that treat psychological disorders as a professional asset.

On TNT’s “Perception,” which will soon air a third season, Eric McCormack plays a schizophrenic neuroscience professor who moonlights as an FBI consultant, solving murders with the help of witnesses he hallucinates. “Mind Games,” which lasted five episodes this spring before getting the axe, starred Steve Zahn as a bipolar genius who used to teach psychology and now runs a “problem-solving” business. Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes coolly calls himself a “high-functioning sociopath,” but Sherlock fans have been offering competing psychological profiles for Arthur Conan Doyle’s character for decades. “Homeland,” at its best, complicated this dynamic, but Claire Danes’s Carrie Mathison was still gifted with a perception that her saner C.I.A. colleagues lacked. She was a superhero, until she was a lovesick lackey.

Because it’s so painfully clumsy and thoughtlessly constructed, “Black Box” distills what’s unsettling in the rest of these shows into something wholly unpleasant.

Alan Sepinwall also pans the show:

Describing the show makes it sound like the sort of thing Jack Donaghy might have scheduled on the “30 Rock” version of NBC: Kelly Reilly plays Catherine Black, a brilliant neurologist who’s known as “the Marco Polo of the brain,” and who has somehow kept secret from all her friends, colleagues, and even her long-term boyfriend Will (David Ajala) that she is bipolar, and subject to abrupt, extreme mood swings from manic to depressive. Her name is Black, she tells us that people in her field call the brain a black box, and she is an expert at curing everyone’s neurological difficulties except her own! And she frequently refuses to take her medication because she fears becoming dull or, worse, “normal,” which leads her to sleep around, perch on hotel balcony railings while drunk and frequently dance to free-form jazz compositions that only she can hear.

In other words, it’s combining what’s become the most annoying aspect of “Homeland” with the most formulaic parts of “House”(*) with that tired old saw that Fienberg has dubbed the Vocational Irony Narrative.