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Medical Jekyll-and-Hyde story needs help, STAT

Prognosis grim for heady drama based on bipolar neurosurgeon

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Just so you know, the new ABC drama Black Box has nothing to do with airplanes, flight data or aviation-related calamities.

But that doesn't mean it doesn't run a fairly high risk of suffering a spectacular prime-time crash and burn.

Black Box, which premières Thursday at 9 p.m. on ABC, is a medical drama that concerns itself with the mysterious workings of the human brain -- which, apparently, neurosurgical types refer to as "the black box" because it's so complex and impossible to fully understand.

Even the most brilliant physician -- in this case, the series' central character, Dr. Catherine Black, as portrayed by Kelly Reilly (Flight, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows) -- is bound to find the brain a bit intimidating. While in conversation with her psychiatrist, Dr. Helen Hartramph (Vanessa Redgrave), Catherine wonders aloud, "How do you make sense of 100 billion neurons with 100 trillion connections between them? The galaxy is simple by comparison."

Obviously, we're dealing with some pretty heady stuff here.

Dr. Black is a leading physician and researcher at a prestigious New York City neurological centre known simply as The Cube. She's on Newsweek's list of the 100 Most Important People in Medicine, and is referred to in professional circles as "the Marco Polo of the brain."

Oh, and she suffers from a severe bipolar disorder (also known as a manic-depressive condition), which she has kept hidden from her bosses and colleagues. As long as she stays on her meds, she's got it under control.

Of course, she has a history of wilfully going off her meds. This is supposed to be the detail that makes Black Box intriguing, but it becomes apparent early on that it's the series' greatest weakness, and will be easy to pinpoint as the cause if this mid-season arrival fails -- as it well could -- after just a few episodes.

At work, Catherine is a tremendously talented doctor with a knack for identifying unconventional methods for treating difficult brain-related cases.

She's a published author and an in-demand lecturer. When the series pilot opens, she has just returned from a medical conference in San Francisco where she "absolutely nailed" a speech in front of an important crowd. But as she reveals to Dr. Hartramph, her triumph came after she made the ill-advised decision to go off her meds; the well-received address, in which she spoke of the unrestrained genius of Vincent van Gogh, Ernest Hemingway, Charles Dickens and Billie Holliday and asked, "Should they have been medicated into mediocrity?" was the product of a manic hallucination and she has no memory of giving it.

Her shrink is quick to point out that all the "brilliant" people she cited ended up suffering premature and self-inflicted demises.

"Normalizing does not doom you to mediocrity," she says. "It allows you to live long enough to do your best work.

"Your life is at stake. Do you want to be exceptional and dead?"

And that, for better and worse, is the baseline upon which Black Box is built. In the sequences that take place at The Cube, Black Box plays out as a better-than-average medical drama in which the inevitable case-of-the-week assortment could prove to be quite fascinating over a longer run.

When it's focused on Catherine's personal life, Black Box becomes as predictable as the human brain is mysterious. She stays on her meds and goes to work as a brilliant physician; she goes off her meds and does crazy, horrible things that are harmful to all the people who love her -- the perfect boyfriend (David Ajala) who wants to marry her; the brother and sister-in-law (David Chisum, Laura Fraser) who seek to protect her from herself; and her niece (Siobhan Williams), whom she loves as if she were her own daughter.

The biggest problem facing Black Box is that its writers seem intent on making the personal stuff the dominant narrative thread. If that turns out to be the case, Black Box will quickly become a tired Jekyll/Hyde tale, in which the notion of an out-of-control individual keeping a massive problem from destroying her career becomes impossible to believe.

Black Box's storyline is in need of urgent, perhaps life-saving surgical attention. Without it, the prognosis is grim.

brad.oswald@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @BradOswald

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 23, 2014 C3

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