Black Box Review: ABC's Mental Procedural Is Too Chaotic To Be Enjoyable

Black Box is a step in an edgy direction for ABC, which generally prefers soapy dramas like Grey’s Anatomy, Revenge or Once Upon A Time. This time around, the network's new offering follows a famed neuroscience who must religiously medicate due to bipolar disorder. Despite its complicated lead character, Black Box still finds the time to be a procedural each week, offering viewers a look at different mental illnesses and physical handicaps that lead them into the neuroscience wing of a prominent hospital.

It sounds intriguing, but what makes Black Box such a unique endeavor also makes it a chaotic, hellish program. Lead Dr. Catherine Black (Kelly Reilly) constantly lives on an emotional rollercoaster. She loves the manic phase of her bipolar disorder and enjoys going off the meds. Because of this, she sometimes sinks into a depressive state, a state only her psychiatrist, Dr. Hartramph (Vanessa Redgrave), seems to have any luck with. On top of this, she sometimes has random relations with strangers, which has strained her home life with her partner, Will (David Ajala), who eventually begins to engage with her in twisted mental games.

That’s a lot of interpersonal drama for a procedural, which means Black Box should fit an audience outside of those who love the average case of the week shows. It also means there is an excessive amount of drama to digest in each hour-long segment. Black flits from her job to her home, dealing with personal crisis after personal crisis. At work she seems more put together, but she’s dealing with a slew of neurological problems in individuals that cause them to also be unbalanced. Because of this, the show is a schizophrenic whirlwind of emotions, only anchored by Black’s clever, amusing and wholly stable work partner, Dr. Lina Lark (Ali Wong).

It’s admirable that ABC would tackle a project about mental illness and it’s worthy of note that the network would package its show into a procedural format. Mostly, however, it’s just frustrating to see upset people take their emotions out on one another, all in a package that is neatly tied up by the end of each episode (usually without a cute pink bow). Mental illnesses and physical diseases of the brain are difficult things to grapple with and while we get to see a variety of different medical problems with the contained episodes, its also hard to get a feel for the reality of those diseases.

Due to the show’s procedural status, ABC sent us several random episodes of Black Box, which may have contributed to the hectic nature of our viewing. But with characters so hard to identify with and a less than cozy timeslot, it looks like Black Box could be headed to an early grave. If it stays, however, it's going to need to decide whether it wants to put the cases of the week in the foreground and give the Dr. and her personal life a scene or two each week or put her personal life drama in the foreground and stop stalling its momentum by introducing new patients without long-term importance. Either lane would be better than this awkward middle ground of stops and starts because her emotional rollercoaster takes viewers way too high or way too low to suddenly hit the pause button and start caring about some random person's strange neurological disorder.

Black Box premieres on Thursday April 24 at 10 PM ET on ABC.

Jessica Rawden
Managing Editor

Reality TV fan with a pinch of Disney fairy dust thrown in. Theme park junkie. If you’ve created a rom-com I’ve probably watched it.