Was I the Only One Watching ‘Black Box?’
I think I was. But, if you’re out there, other person who watched the ABC primetime drama Black Box, I am here to tell you sad news: it just got canceled. Black Box was one of the best-worst shows on TV, and that was why I loved it. I discovered it as you do when you download the free things on iTunes: A show about a sex-crazed neurologist with bipolar disorder? Sure, I’ll try that while I ride on the subway.
Cut to jazzy music, shots of mangled tree branches, a chess board and a woman miming being trapped in a box. The show is about a woman named Dr. Black and she is stuck in a box. It’s a metaphor for the mind, OK? Soon Black Box became my guilty pleasure, the show I couldn’t talk about with anyone because no one under the age of living was watching it. The problem with Black Box was that it wasn’t supposed to be a guilty pleasure at all. It was supposed to be a show you watched because you were tired of reading so many smart magazine things and you just wanted a glass of Pinot and some sophisticated programming for adults. It was supposed to be good, and it wasn’t. And that’s why I liked it.
Now that it is relegated to iTunes and weird foreign downloading services forever, let me tell you a little bit about Black Box.
It was about the aforementioned neurologist, Dr. Catherine Black, the smartest, sexiest neurologist in a Manhattan that looked like Canada-Boston. She suffered in secret from bipolar disorder, which was supposed to rationalize why she was constantly cheating on her hot chef fiancé, but did not explain why he was also constantly cheating on her. She had a secret daughter, named Esme, who her brother raised as his own child. Why? No discernible reason except it made for a riveting, if unbelievable, plotline.
Aside from the fact that she couldn’t keep it in her pants and was pretending to be an aunt to her own daughter for no real reason, things were pretty good for Dr. Black. She was, presumably, in her mid-thirties and the best doctor in the world. No joke. She was so good she didn’t even have to wear doctor clothes. All she needed was a flashlight and her empathic understanding of the human condition to diagnose major brain trauma. This really happened. She was a brain magician.
Although there were a lot of words bandied about like “prefrontal cortex,” it wasn’t a very hard show to follow. Each week on Black Box would reveal a guest star with a weird brain issue, and a continuing storyline about Dr. Black’s mania-driven sexual indiscretions. In case you were even slightly confused, tons of expository writing was there to help:
“I’m having spontaneous medication intolerance,” Dr. Black, as I will refer to her because she is the best doctor in world, tells her shrink, played by Vanessa Redgrave.
“It’s certainly exacerbated by the upheaval in your life, telling Will about Esme and breaking up with him.” Now that is a shrink who is paying attention.
Each episode was kind of like House MD but with the brain. It would start with an unrecognizable guest star with a mysterious illness. Maybe they’d be applying makeup on a model and suddenly faint or maybe they’d have some sort of religious experience and start walking around the house in prayer robes blessing their family in Hebrew.
Then they’d come into Dr. Black’s office and her staff of dodo birds would think they knew what was wrong, utilizing all these high-tech medical imaging tools. Then Dr. Black would come in and shine a light on the patient’s eyes, and be all, “Wait a minute, he’s chanting about his childhood. That means his memory banks are being activated, which means a shot of cortisol should cure him.” I just made that up, but you get the picture.
Dr. Black’s job was weirdly easy, and gratifying. She was what I imagined I’d be like as an adult when I was a very young child with no understanding of how the world works.
Her co-workers, who also didn’t know how the world works, would be impressed with her, but also a little sketched out, because she often appeared to not have slept. That’s when the bipolar disorder would come in, as a kind of Heather Locklear character, driving everyone sex-mad.
According to this show, people who suffer from bipolar disorder are exactly like what “crazy” is in movies—doing extensive math equations barefoot on giant chalkboards.
And sometimes on their arms.
Dr. Black’s bipolar disorder also led her to have hot elevator sexy time with her secret hospital boyfriend. Jazzy music would play and you’d enjoy some tight shots of their faces making out. Then you’d enjoy about ten commercials for Abilify, because this show was obviously created for the sole purpose of entertaining you in between ads for drugs.
I’d like to say I’ll miss Black Box because no other primetime drama really addressed psychiatric issues in depth, or because it pitted neuroscience against psychiatry, or because it shed light on rare brain disorders. But really, I’ll miss the series because it couldn’t handle those issues with an ounce of delicacy or realism. It was a silly show dressed up in really nice office clothes, which made it both pretty to look at and amusing to tease.
RIP Black Box. You were like a made-up show that TV characters on a real show watch when they’re making fun of what TV shows are like. And the best part was, you didn’t know it.