The Washington Post

ABC’s ‘Black Box’: She’s unhinged and so is the show

David Chisum and Kelly Reilly in “Black Box.” (Giovanni Rufino/ABC)
TV critic

“Black Box,” a miserable mess of an ABC drama that comes with the trendy and suspiciously convenient “limited series” label, is about a brilliant neuroscientist trying to keep a lid on the fact she’s got bipolar disorder.

To be clear, she has what television imagines bipolar disorder to be, mired in cuckoo Jekyll/Hyde stereotypes: Hours after skipping her meds, Dr. Catherine Black (Kelly Reilly) enters a psychedelic la-la land of sexy sin that causes her to twirl and dance and break stemware and get the nearest man out of his shirt.

Hank Stuever has been The Post's TV critic since 2009. He joined the paper in 1999 as a writer for the Style section, where he has covered an array of popular (and unpopular) culture across the nation. View Archive

When Catherine enters a manic phase, “Black Box” (premiering Thursday night in the now sacred “Scandal” spot) fires up the smooth jazz saxophone solo, and that’s how you know she’s a danger to herself and others: It suddenly sounds like an outdoor wine festival.

But if Catherine’s brother (David Chisum) or fiance (David Ajala) can talk her down and get her back on the right dosage, then she’s immediately ready to return to her job at a university neuroscience institute (called “the Cube”), where she diagnoses and frequently cures mental illnesses and other brain disorders in her grateful patients — cases that no other doctor can possibly understand. The title refers to Catherine’s nickname for the brain. It could also describe your own TV after you turn it off.

For the show to work, Catherine must endure at least one manic episode per episode. She embraces this personal irresponsibility as part of her treatment philosophy, believing that unfettered genius is preferable to medicated mediocrity (Vincent Van Gogh, a suicide victim, being her favorite example of this).

Her psychiatrist (played by Vanessa Redgrave?! Darling, how on Earth did you end up in this awful show? Let’s get you out of here — grab your shawl) emphatically disagrees, talking Catherine off ledges both literal and figurative.

“Black Box,” created by Amy Holden Jones (who wrote the 1988 film “Mystic Pizza”), has a strange way of pawing around for the right tone. It seems to have a classic case of prime-time multiple-personality disorder: The show wants a little of the deliciously implausible plots that Shonda Rhimes serves up on “Scandal” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” particularly in the way of workplace, sexual and medical ethics; at the same time it reaches for a more sober “E.R.” approach to procedure and empathy.

But “Black Box’s” biggest flaw is that it has zero intuition for its own (apparently unintentional) acts of camp, attempting to say something meaningful about the stigma of mental illness when everything about the show is pure crackpot.

‘Bad Teacher’

Class, raise your hand if you saw the “Bad Teacher” movie a few years ago (starring Cameron Diaz) and left wishing someone would make a half-hour TV show sort of like it, only much worse.

Nobody? Yeah, I thought so.

Yet here it is, one of the last shows rushing by as the 2013-14 broadcast TV season plunges off the inevitable cliff. In this “Bad Teacher” (premiering Thursday on CBS) a former trophy wife (Ari Graynor as Meredith) decides to forge a résumé to get a job as a teacher at a middle school in an upper-income district in order to troll the pool of divorced PTA dads for her next rich husband.

What follows is a predictable reiteration of the film’s central disdain for teachers of all kinds, including the lothario coach (Ryan Hansen), the inept principal (David Alan Grier), the hopelessly lonely spinster (Sara Gilbert) and the by-the-book fussbudget (“Sex and the City’s” Kristin Davis) who doesn’t believe Meredith is legit and works to undermine her.

Though Meredith finds a soft spot for the nerd girls who have been ostracized by the popular girls, it’s hard to laugh at her amorality and indifference to her job. “Bad Teacher” is a comedy — barely — that reinforces an unfortunate message that teaching is a career wasteland.

Black Box

(one hour) premieres Thursday at 10 p.m. on ABC.

Bad Teacher

(30 minutes) premieres Thursday at 9:30 p.m. on CBS.


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