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Scott D. Pierce
Scott D. Pierce writes about television for the Salt Lake Tribune. Vice president of the Television Critics Associationn, he's covered TV in Utah since 1990.

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TV review: ‘Black Box’ is a dreary, muddled mess

In the wake of the scandal in which he’s recently become embroiled, Bryan Singer’s name has been removed from the advertising accompanying ABC’s new series "Black Box."

(Singer, the director of X-Men: Days of Future Past" and a producer of "Black Box," has been accused of drugging and raping a minor in 1999.)

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That’s the least of this show’s problems. Of greater concern is that this dreary, overwrought and unimaginably depressing series even made it on ABC’s schedule - and in the prime slot vacated by "Scandal" (Thursday, 9 p.m., Ch. 4) after last week’s season finale.

It’s clear that everyone involved in "Black Box" thinks this is a Very Important Series.

"There have been a lot of medical shows," said creator/executive producer Amy Holden Jones, "and there’s never been a show like this. Because it’s not about psychiatry - it’s not about those issues - it’s about neurology. It’s about the 21st century view of the brain."

That might be interesting if it were true. It’s not. Not only is the case Catherine handles in Thursday’s premiere something we’ve seen many times before - nearly identical in some respects - but "Black Box" is just the latest in a long line of dramas about a flawed doctor trying to heal himself. Or, in this case, herself.

Kelly Reilly stars as neurologist Catherine Black, who is one of the world’s leading experts on the brain. (That’s where the unfortunate title of "Black Box" came from - it’s slang for the brain, not the recording devices investigators search for after an airline crash.)

Catherine is also bipolar, and she doesn’t like to take her meds. Which is bad for her and bad for the viewers.

Bad for her because she becomes manic. Bad for the viewers because we’re subjected to extended scenes that are hallucinations, and we have no way of knowing what’s real and what’s not until after those scenes are over.

There’s also something uncomfortable - if not outright wrong -- about exploiting bipolar disorder for entertainment. (In the spirit full disclosure, I have a close relative who is bipolar, and it has caused unbelievable pain and struggle for him and his family.)

For "Black Box" to work, you have to empathize - or at least sympathize - with Catherine. Which is tough to do given that this character knows that her behavior is hurting people around her but she makes no effort to stop. She feels less brilliant when she’s not taking her meds ... another plotline we’ve seen umpteen times before.

The cast includes Vanessa Redgrave as Dr. Helen Hartramph, Catherine’s psychiatrist; Will David Ajala as Will Van Renseller, the man who wants to marry Catherine; Ditch Davey as the cartoonish Dr. Ian Bickman, the womanizing, arrogant jerk to whom Catherine is attracted; Terry Kenney as Dr. Owen Morely, the chief of staff and Catherine’s mentor; and David Chicum as Joshua Black, Catherine older brother and one of the few people who know about her condition.

"Scandal" is often overwrought and over-the-top, but it’s fun. And amid all the insane plot twists, it doesn’t take itself too seriously.

"Black Box," on the other hand, is overwrought and takes itself deadly seriously. Which make it a dreary exercise in futility.

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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