Claire Danes’s cryface has become a thing for fans of “Homeland.” Every time Danes’s bipolar Carrie goes off her medication, her emotions take over her face, her face turns into a citrus-reaction shot, and some advertising executive at Sour Patch Kids tells his people to get Danes’s people on the phone.
As the bipolar neuroscientist Dr. Catherine Black in ABC’s new drama “Black Box,” actress Kelly Reilly doesn’t succumb to cryface. She plays a network version of mental illness, which means her extreme states of mind are less prolonged and less ugly. At its core, “Black Box” is a conventional procedural drama, with cases of the week in which Catherine solves seemingly impossible illnesses; such a heroine needs to be relatively pleasing on a weekly basis, according to network aesthetics and ratings demands.
So “Black Box” is a cryface-free zone.
But Dr. Black is indeed like Carrie in “Homeland,” along with other TV leads including Eric McCormack’s schizophrenic scientist on “Perception” and the granddaddy of them all, Tony Shalhoub’s detective with OCD on “Monk,” in that her mental illness is her gift. Just as literary fans often romanticize depression and alcoholism, making them the cause of an afflicted author’s genius, TV writers are portraying some hard diagnoses as a kind of magical power. The show, which premieres Thursday at 10, makes it clear that Catherine’s excellence as a doctor is directly related to her disorder, and that her brilliance is dulled when she takes her meds. Black and her psychiatrist, Dr. Helen Hartramph, played with expected formidability by Vanessa Redgrave, spend sessions debating the virtues of being “normal” versus exhilaratingly manic.
I imagine shows such as “Black Box” along with movies such as “Silver Linings Playbook” are a mixed bag for those suffering from mental illness and their advocates. On the one hand, the likes of “Black Box” open up the discussion, taking what was once strictly a subplot of the week on a medical show and making it into the focus of attention. The heroes and heroines who suffer are also quite relatable, not aliens who can’t function or violent offenders who meet their fate by the time the credits roll. On the other hand, the shows tend to take an all-or-nothing approach — you either take meds and lose your talent, or you don’t take them and, ultimately, fly too close to the sun and crash. There are very few balances struck, because that would be less dramatic.
“Black Box,” created by Amy Holden Jones, is also a mixed bag for fans of good TV. Reilly, who is British but who has a convincing American accent, is a sturdy lead. She nicely holds her own in her confrontational scenes with Redgrave. She projects an intelligence that is essential to her role, and in her manic scenes — dancing alone on a balcony ledge or becoming hypersexual — she manages to keep from sliding into full-on caricature. And her scenes with her daughter, who is being raised by her brother and his wife, and who doesn’t know that her beloved aunt is her mother, have some potential.
But the writing is too often lazy. In the premiere and two other episodes sent to critics, the dialogue has been written to double as exposition about bipolar disorder and other illnesses. Catherine’s relationships with her boyfriend, Will (David Ajala), who has just found out about her illness, and her womanizing new colleague Dr. Ian Bickman (Ditch Davey), sometimes seem to exist simply to teach us the talking points about Catherine’s illness. The two men come off more like symbolic figures and mouthpieces than characters.
The cases of the week, where Catherine inevitably pulls a “House”-style miracle, are also a problem. They’re given short shrift to make room for Catherine’s story; they feel stunted and tacked on. If the “Black Box” writers could jettison the network-procedural expectation that each of Catherine’s cases ought to be solved in one episode, those cases could be more engaging and less stock. Cable dramas, with their season-long arcs, are able to give every person on screen at least some degree of depth.
With such uninspired writing, it’s hard to be optimistic about the future of the show. Will the writers keep Catherine cycling in and out of bipolar episodes and superficial cases weekly, as an easy way to stoke the drama? She doesn’t deserve that, and neither do viewers.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.