Revisiting the “Black Box”

Two episodes of the new ABC series Black Box have come and gone, and sad to say, I’m not impressed.

This show could have—and should have—broken new ground in the portrayal of mental illness as experienced by everyday people. Well, Catherine Black isn’t exactly an everyday person, being a brilliant neuroscientist and all, but she’s also not the stereotypical wild-eyed street person you see yelling at garbage cans. Unfortunately, the producers have chosen to show Dr. Black as selfish, immature, and out-of-control, a woman who can’t handle motherhood and who jumps in the sack with any available male when she’s not busy saving lives.

Personally, I can relate to a lot of the manic behavior, although I’ve never had an episode five minutes after flushing all my meds. We have yet to see how Catherine deals with the depressive side of her illness, but I suspect it won’t be much better than she does its opposite number. She is childlike in her demeanor—hardly the picture of a genius doctor, I have to say—and even when one of her patients crashes and she has to call for backup, she does so in a little-girl voice that’s hardly commanding. (I’ve been in code situations before, and believe me, when I call one I am barking out orders, not asking politely for the ambu-bag.)

But it’s the portrayal of bipolar disorder itself that I really take issue with. This show was supposed to help dispel some of the stigma surrounding the illness by featuring a multifaceted character who lives an extraordinary life and just happens to be bipolar. Instead, we have a two-dimensional character whose mood changes almost every commercial break, and whose behavior is so bizarre that she’s not allowed to see her own daughter (who’s being raised by her sister and brother-in-law). We are, of course, supposed to admire Catherine for having had the courage to give up her baby for fear of turning out like her own mother, who committed suicide when she herself was a child, but it’s really hard to do when she’s less of an adult than teen-aged Esme.

Even the boyfriend pisses me off. He ran away when Catherine revealed that she’s bipolar, then came back when he realized he liked what she gives him when she’s manic. Then in last night’s episode, he begged Catherine to be completely honest with him, but as soon as she confessed that she cheated on him at a medical conference in another city, he left her again. How is she ever supposed to learn to be truthful when the repercussions are so great?

I really, really wanted this show to be good. But it’s not even decent as a medical drama, and I LOVE medical dramas. I’ve never missed an episode of ER or Grey’s Anatomy, even though they’re both basically soap operas with a good-sized dose of actual medicine; so for this show to disappoint in this arena as well makes it hard to continue watching.

But I will. I hope the show will find its voice soon and decide that it’s going to be either a medical show with bipolar as a sideline, or a show in which bipolar is the main topic with medicine as the backdrop. Black Box just doesn’t have the depth to be both.



Published by bpnurse

I'm a retired registered nurse and writer who also happens to be street-rat crazy, if the DSM-IV.....oops, 5---is to be believed. I was diagnosed with bipolar I disorder at the age of 55, and am still sorting through the ashes of the flaming garbage pile that my life had become. Here, I'll share the lumps and bumps of a late-life journey toward sanity.... along with some rants, gripes, sour grapes and good old-fashioned whining from time to time. It's not easy being bipolar in a unipolar world; let's figure it out together.

6 thoughts on “Revisiting the “Black Box”

  1. The boyfriend is too much. Both episodes he ran out on her. THe first in the RAIN!!! WTF I felt like it’s giving this message that it is ok to mistreat someone with a mental health issue instead of being empathetic or getting out. He has that option!!! The first one was meh and me thinking that it;s the first episode so I can give it some lee way…. but the second shows an obvious pattern of every character being passive aggressive assholes. gah!


  2. Yeah .. you said it. I was just so overwhelmed w/ the whole thing. And the dancing to the music coming thru her phone as Esme played piano – was that something she did in her head? And as you said, a mood change w/ every break … I don’t unnastan… Definitely not an accurate portrayal. BTW another thought, she can’t be trusted with her daughter but she can as a neurologist?


  3. Television isn’t a great media for subtlety and nuance. But I think it is a step forward that there are more and more shows of various kinds in which bipolar is mentioned. Clearly the process of destigmatizing mood swings is happening, however slowly. It will be great when there are shows in which bipolar is just one dimension of a character’s life…


  4. Reblogged this on MoodSurfing and commented:
    Has anyone seen this new series? I would love comments from my readers. Although it is disappointing in many ways, I think the fact that there are more and more shows about bipolar is positive. Destigmatization is happening, however slowly.


  5. I only watched the first episode and so ticked off by the she kept going off her meds, I didn’t watch the second. I felt it was irresponsible of the writers to imply that not taking her meds on one day would send her into a manic phase the same day, that could be remedied by taking more meds the next day. It doesn’t work that way. The BP people in my life take months to feel the effects of their medications. I had high hopes for the series but was disappointed.


  6. I really wanted to love this show. I was expecting a drama that would portray the main character as someone who lives an amazing life with a mental illness. Instead we got a tired and clichéd medical show that only reinforces the stereotypes of us BPs as unreliable, immature, and noncompliant (gads, I hate that word) with our treatment plans. Guess we all asked for too much.


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