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With Kelly Reilly as a Bipolar Neurologist, ABC’s “Black Box” Is Crazy Bad

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

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.

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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M. Kay Taylor

Was my favorite program – furious about the cancellation!


Since all medical shows are basically science fiction, pretending to have the well being of the patient in mind, this one is one of the best ever. Strong female characters, Vanessa Redgrave is in it fer chrissakes, often shake up the status quo who go running for the comfort of others opinions.


All those people that are saying this show is bad probably have never even thought about what it is like to have a mental disorder. It is a shame that our population is so ignorant about this. The show is meant to be more educational than comical as stigma towards mental disorders or many other disorders is unbelievable.
I can guarantee you that most of the people work in the medical field can relate to this show in some way. So shut up you ignorant critics.

Dick Riker

Am I a bad person because I think Kelly Reilly is a terrible actress? This brilliant, universally lauded neurologist is secretly bi-polar. OK. What I cannot handle is the wimpiness of her character — on or off medication. She is indecisive and has the personality of a teenager. If I needed the help of a neurologist and I consulted her, five minutes of her personality would put me right out the door looking for a directory of neurologist.


I love the way the Dr posted here about this show. A bunch of so called critics writing like they know all about Neurology and how this show trivializes it and mental illness. You critics spoke too soon. A real Dr posts his opinion and I think between the few of you (know it all critics) and the Dr. who posted his opinion, I have to agree and go with him. I like the show. It has a little of everything in a TV show Drama that makes me keep coming back. Kelly Reilly is great and beautiful in this role as are her supporting cast. I do hope we get to at least see a conclusion of some sort to this beautiful show. I love it.

Reed Kaplan, MD,CM

I've watched the first 3 episodes of Black Box.  As a neurologist (Montreal Neurologic Institute) and Psychiatrist (Stanford University) and a clinician who has treated 1000s of people (including many professionals) with Bipolar Disease and other Neuropsychiatric Syndromes I think this show is pretty fantastic.  Not only is it a poignant representation of the main character, Dr. Black, but it does depict the "glamorous" and often "desired" side of her illness (perhaps that which makes her a more compassionate doctor).  I think Ms. Reilly is brilliant at the portrayal and the writing is exciting, educated, experienced and wise. This may be the first doctor show I've enjoyed since "Ben Casey" (which I saw as young child), because in addition to the wonderful drama, humor and yes, glamour, the neurologic syndromes showcased are some of the most interesting parts of my work. Though I have worked with Time Life productions, Bill Graham Productions, and The U.S. Olympic Committee, and as worthwhile as my career has been, I never imagined such a colorful and compelling telling of these stories.  ‘Damn sorry I didn't! Bravo to Amy Holden Jones who has.

BTW. For those who criticize the show for over glamorizing or diminishing the seriousness of these illnesses I would suggest that there are many many solemn and austere “serious” documentaries, "60 Minutes" pieces and Academy Award nominated movies about mental illness.  In fact, I don't think "Black Box" trivializes the illness at all. It does portray its reality.  I get tearful, I laugh, and I'm enriched by the show…as I am by patients.

Bravo, Bravo, Bravo!

Reed Kaplan, MD, CM
Behavioral Neurology and Psychopharmacology
Menlo Park, California


Really? Why so negative? Kelly Reilly is awesome and shown in Her natural beauty and talent.
The subject is fit for such a time as this. We hear of all the mental disorders and are so afraid to confess and accept it's real, so many people need help. This show may not show your reality of someone you know and love that suffers from bi-polar, but so many are suffering either in secret or silence. I say this gives voice to the problem and that's a start. We need this eye-opening series
It is an icebreaker. I'm a fan, so it's thumbs up from me.


This show has turned out to be the biggest disappointment of any new series I have seen in decades. It is truly horrible.

The cast outside of the main star are completely unbelievable. I hate all of them. How on earth are all of her coworkers that blind to the fact she is bi-polar? I mean the very first episode is of her epically going off her meds and making a fool of herself in public-in front of hundreds of her colleagues.

The next thing we know she is off her meds again and screwing this super surgeon she works with who thinks he is Jacopo "J" Peterman from Seinfeld. Is this supposed to be a comedy now?

Which is the worst- every time she goes off her meds and has sex, they play it up as steamy and erotic. I understand that sex off meds is probably a lot better. But in the show- when she is mindlessly screwing a practical stranger behind her loyal boyfriend's back, it should be shown as a tragedy.

When she talks about her meds to her boyfriend, she seems more Munchausen and childish in the way she explains what all her meds do.

I had hoped we would be seeing a new version of House in this character. But she is nothing of the sort.

The patients of the week are relegated to moments of face time.

Watch it if you feel okay enough with yourself to laugh at a show about being successful in spite of having bi-polar.

I wanted something inspirational- not a 1980's evening soap opera.


I like this show. WTF are you critics talking about? Great actors and story-line and education about mental-illness…What is YOUR Baseline???


Individuals w/bipolar disorder work hard to educate the public. Famous actors like Patty Duke when finally diagnosed with manic-depressive disorder & received the help needed stated in an interview "never ever even remotely thought of not taking the medication,” because when her disorder was out-of-control it hurt her children & herself. I have worked as an MSW. People suffering from mental health disorders have enough difficulties finding the correct meds. Show does a disservice to the public to suggest not taking medication and glamorizing the results.


I'm neither a TV critic nor a neuroscientist, but I do agree this is awful TV that simplifies, trivializes, and outright lies about the complexities of bipolar disorder and its medications. SHAME on all involved in the production of this horrible tv show.


I watched the debut last night and was intrigued. My vote slants toward what Sonia Saraiya from the A.V. Club, and I really hope the audience gets an opportunity to see the storyline unfold and characters develop over time.


sounds like the AV Club is on board!

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