Written by Megan LaBruna
Catherine Black (Kelly Reilly of Sherlock Holmes fame) is not your average doctor. She is brilliant, she is unpredictable, she is world renowned, she is bipolar.
Many times doctors are driven into fields or research based on an illness or disease that has affected someone they love. In the case of ABC’s new medical drama Black Box, Catherine’s diagnosis may have been the driving factor in her career as a neurologist. How can she be a revered neurologist with the potential to display such erratic behavior? Well that’s because only a handful of people know of her secret, Catherine’s older brother and his wife, their daughter Esme (Siobhan Williams) and Catherine’s psychiatrist. To the rest of the unsuspecting world she is “normal.”
It is obvious that Catherine struggles with the word “normal.” They mention it several times in the pilot how defining “normal” is not as simple as it may seem. And does being this concept of normal really mean that you are just average? When she is invited to give a speech in California, Catherine goes off her meds for a shot of inspiration. She focuses on the fact that some of the greatest people in history- Van Gogh, Sylvia Plath, and Ernest Hemingway all had varying degrees of mental diagnoses. They were all brilliant and yet, the world wanted to make them average by placing them on medication. Her psychiatrist later points out that while they were brilliant, they also all managed to kill themselves, whether on purpose or by the sheer nature of their disease.
While Catherine was explaining her experience of voluntarily going off her meds at the conference, the audience sees what she believes she saw. The show presents it in such a way that everything looks hyper-colored and exciting. They did a great job of showing the high that Catherine experiences, really allowing the audience to understand why she would elect to go off her medication when she knows such terrible things can happen. Kelly Reilly also does a fantastic job of portraying Catherine and all her various sides. She can be the understanding doctor, the cool aunt, the loving girlfriend and the manic depressive crazy person running around on a street corner in pajamas.
It is interesting how they portray her episodes. The scenery will change from what she sees while in such a state, which is usually magical glimmering lights, a heightened sense of importance and an intense sexual drive, to what the world sees, an erratic woman with an inflated ego and the skills of a dominatrix. The question is how long can she keep this charade going before someone outside her trusted circle finds out and exposes her? She could lose one of the few things that keep her going when she hits her lowest lows.
Her license could be revoked if they found out she suffered from bipolar disorder and has a history of non-compliance with her own medication. This is the point where the audience can empathize with her distaste for what is considered “normal.” She could do nothing to stop the pre-disposition of the genetic affects of bipolar disorder and has done everything in her power to be nothing like her mother, who committed suicide when Catherine and her brother were children. She is fabulous with her patients and because of her diagnosis, can connect with them on a much deeper level than any other colleagues in her field. And yet, all her work and progress could be undone every time she elects to not take her medication, because the world defines her brilliance as abnormal.
However, even if she lost her life’s work she would still have one thing to keep her going; her daughter. It is foreshadowed earlier in the episode that she was left pregnant and alone, however we don’t see what happened with the baby. As it turns out we are treated to the answer by the end of the pilot when it’s revealed that her mystery daughter is actually her niece Esme. Catherine’s brother and sister-in-law have been raising the baby all these years as their own. As far as Esme knows, Catherine is her cool aunt. Personally, I think they dropped that knowledge bomb a little too soon. With everything else that was going on in this pilot, they could have held back another episode or two before revealing Esme as her daughter. Even though, I’m sure, most viewers already presumed that’s where the story was heading.
They did manage to throw in a bit of a surprise. Catherine’s love interest, who seemingly dumped her after finding out she had been lying about her diagnosis for the entire year of their relationship, may actually stay in the picture. He has handled most of the curve balls she has managed to throw at him, even going off her meds and allowing him to experience her real manic state. I’m sure he won’t last forever but he’s not giving up without a fight.
The show overall is your average medical drama, shuffling patients through who’s cases highlight whatever theme of the night and having all the sexual tension that seems to always be present in every medical show. However, Black Box highlights its difference subtly in its choice of music. Most other medical dramas opt to go with popular songs or upbeat background music. Black Box is heavy on the jazz, which gives the show its own vibe. Jazz in itself is uncontained, usually most often riffed and the music tends to express the musicians feeling in that moment. It is unpredictable, exciting and can sometimes take a dark turn. It perfectly embodies the essence of the show’s lead character, and I hope to see other small changes that keep Black Box from turning into anything but the “normal” medical drama.