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With Kelly Reilly as a Bipolar Neurologist, ABC's "Black Box" Is Crazy Bad

Photo of Sam Adams By Sam Adams | Criticwire April 24, 2014 at 1:07PM

The mysteries of the human mind pale beside the question of how this show got on the air.
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Kelly Reilly in ABC's "Black Box"
Kelly Reilly in ABC's "Black Box"

I suppose I should apologize to my TV critic colleagues for the fun I had reading their reviews of ABC's "Black Box," the by-all-accounts dreadful series about a brilliant neurologist (Kelly Reilly) who secretly suffers from bipolar disorder which premieres tonight. The notices for a a new show haven't been this hilariously, unvaryingly scathing since, well, ABC's "Mixology," nearly two months ago. At this point you have to wonder if ABC's midseason development slate isn't just an elaborate means of trolling TV critics, many of whom have been shocked to discover that "Mixology" is, against all reason, still on the air.

Fortunately, we don't have to feel too bad for the critical community at large, since it seems few of them got all the way through the three episodes ABC sent out in advance. (They were, somewhat unusually, the pilot, the third and the seventh, as if by way of whispering, "We promise -- it gets better.") The Hollywood Reporter's Tim Goodman -- who, lest we doubt his stamina, made it all the way through an episode of "Killer Women" -- tapped out after half an hour, writing, "I lasted 32 minutes in the pilot -- which was a feat of superhuman endurance all things considered. My left hand wrestled with the remote in my right hand as part of my brain fought to shut the whole thing off, but the evilness of my right hand won out for those horrifying 32 minutes and now I can never unsee Kelly Reilly dancing like the bipolar imp she plays on 'Black Box' when she’s not being a super awesome 'world famous neurologist.'"

It just gets better, or worse, from there. Other critics may have lasted longer but they're no kinder, making it seem as id the best things fans of Kelly Reilly can do is pray the series dies a swift death and she invested her paycheck wisely.

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More reviews of ABC's "Black Box"

Alan Sepinwall, HitFix

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.

Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times

A show so deeply flawed and absurdly derivative you will wonder if you, like the main character, are experiencing a manic episode.

Alessandra Stanley, the New York Times

It's a Shonda Rhimes-style medical drama with a twist borrowed from "Homeland" -- a bipolar heroine who, when manic, grooves to jazz and binges on sex. It's not clear why jazz, especially the cool, Coltrane kind, has become a universal cue to signal smart mentally ill people, but it must be because that music sounds high-minded; dumb crazy people probably hear Neil Diamond.

Sarah D. Bunting, Previously.TV

"The show has been a great journey for me driven by a passion that is both personal and intellectual. My father was a physician, a cancer researcher, and he was bipolar." Ah. Was he also a piece of shit? Because if he was, then the pilot is a fitting tribute. 

Matt Fowler, IGN

This is terrible television. And I know that when something's this bad there's a small segment of the populous that hopes that maybe it's one of those "it's so bad it's good" projects. But no. It's so bad that it's just... really really bad. Like "punch your giant-screen Samsung" bad.

David Wiegand, San Francisco Chronicle

No, you won't and shouldn't laugh at neurological disorders, but there are enough writing disorders to keep you in stitches until someone issues a DNR order on "Black Box."

Chuck Barney, Contra Costa Times

We learn that the title is a term used by doctors to describe the human brain because it's "the ultimate mystery." But an equally baffling mystery might be how this underdeveloped, clumsily rendered show ever made it onto the airwaves.

Kristi Turnquist,Oregon Live

But what would really make “Black Box” feel fresh is if, unlike those series, it was bold enough not be tied to the baffling-cases-solved-by-eccentric-geniuses formula. Like its central character, "Black Box" would feel more alive if it broke more rules.

Sonia Saraiya, the A.V. Club

Despite a strong sense that much of this material has been seen before, Black Box offers something novel—a confident, unapologetic character drama. The first few episodes are unafraid of its medical procedural structure while also not feeling too weighed down by it. It has the potential to grow into something stunning, even if it’s not quite there yet.


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