Review: Black Box is a troubling depiction of mental illness

Black Box title card (via WikiMedia)

Black Box title card (via WikiMedia)

C

Spoiler Alert: Tons of spoilers below
 

It doesn’t seem like TV can ever get mental illness on screen right. A bunch of shows have tried: Fox’s Mental, Showtime’s United States of Tara, NBC’s Do No Harm and most recently CBC’s Cracked, but none of them lasted very long. This time around ABC and Black Box take a swing at it and they learn it’s not easy subject matter to knock out of the park, not by a long shot. 

Black Box sincerely tries to reflect what life is like for someone with bipolar disorder, but the truth is it’s nearly impossible to do accurately while still maintaining the common TV conventions and be interesting at the same time. Not only that but to do so without offending at least someone is really tricky.

Catherine Black disposes of her med by flushing them down the toilet to get a manic high (screenshot via Watch ABC)

Catherine Black disposes of her meds by flushing them down the toilet to get a manic high (screenshot via Watch ABC)

This guy thinks its perfectly okay to draw on the walls of the "Neuroscience Research and Treatment Centre" (screenshot via Watch ABC)

This guy thinks its perfectly okay to draw on the walls of the “Neuroscience Research and Treatment Center” (screenshot via Watch ABC)

Black Box doesn’t do itself any favours in the regard of not offending people by portraying the bipolar main character, neuroscientist Catherine Black (Black Box, get it?), as someone who deliberately chooses to go off her meds for an incredible high. When she does, she has no self-control: she cheats on her boyfriend, goes haywire and then blames it all on her illness. Then Black does a complete 180 from the unstable mess she is to a respected neurosurgeon who becomes the solid rock mentally ill patients rely on. When she does, it’s now time for other characters, the patients, to completely cave in and go bonkers. For example, a young college-aged guy is literally painting/drawing on the walls in the “Neuroscience Research and Treatment Center” and then zones out by staring into space. It, like Black’s choice to go off her meds, has to make some out there think oh, come on, you have to know what you’re doing is wrong. It’s a very dangerous depiction of mental illness as some people who might stumble across this show on a Thursday night and haven’t had a mental illness themselves or know someone who has, might leave the show thinking mental illness is just a bullshit excuse to do whatever.

Catherine Black turns into a nymphomaniac when she's in a manic state (screenshot via Watch ABC)

Catherine Black turns into a nymphomaniac when she’s in a manic state (screenshot via Watch ABC)

Catherine Black swings around a streetlight in an manic state (screenshot via Watch ABC)

Catherine Black swings around a streetlight in an manic state (screenshot via Watch ABC)

Catherine Black lies in a hospital bed after a manic icident (screensht via Watch ABC)

Catherine Black lies in a hospital bed after a manic incident (screenshot via Watch ABC)

Adding to the show’s problems is the depiction of Black’s bipolar disorder. It’s so radical and intense making it hard to believe it’s real. Not only does she hook up with every guy with a pulse when she’s in a manic high, but she also starts frantically dancing (the show has quite a jazzy soundtrack by the way) after going off her meds, sometimes in the stairwell at work or on balcony ledges. In one instance, Black hooks up with some guy at work, has such ferocious sex with her fiancé that he’s bleeding by the end of it, then she runs out in the dark and swings around a streetlight while babbling incoherently on a phone. She’s subsequently hospitalized and is so out of control that they could barely keep her constrained in the ambulance. When Black gets out, she swings right into depression and then calls her therapist alone on a beach demanding she tells her a reason to live. (I don’t know how she was planning on killing herself, perhaps she was going to do the same as her mother by filling her pockets with rocks and walking into the ocean, which is a thing now apparently.) Somehow, just telling her work is a reason to live is enough for Black and then she’s back at work. The show’s depiction of bipolar disorder is so outlandish that it simply isn’t believable, not for a minute. Her highs are at superhuman heights and her low comes rather suddenly making it all seem preposterous. If what the show is saying is accurate, before medication for bipolar disorder was released (which I don’t think was very long ago) people ran around banging everyone and frantically danced in the streets and I can’t remember reading about that in history class. Regardless of how over the top the depiction of Black’s mental illness is you still have to wonder how she is able to practice as a neuroscientist (a respected neuroscientist at that) when she’s so unstable herself.

The show's depiction of schizophrenia is particularly troubling (screenshot via Watch ABC)

The way the show treats schizophrenia is particularly troubling (screenshot via Watch ABC)

Here the schizophrenic woman leaves the treatment centre with her imaginary friend despite being cured earlier (screenshot via Watch ABC)

Here the schizophrenic woman leaves the treatment centre with her imaginary friend despite being cured earlier (screenshot via Watch ABC)

The way the series lightly makes fun of mental illness is slightly upsetting as well. For example, a woman who Black treats imagines a midget/elflike guy and plays with him, even high fiveing him. It seems comical, when in real life it isn’t, and it probably wouldn’t look anything like how it is depicted in the show. What’s worse is Black actually cures the woman of the hallucinations but after Black goes off her meds (but isn’t in a manic state yet) she decides to reverse the cure because Black feels the hallucinated character is the woman’s only friend. By the end of the episode, the woman leaves the hospital in a wheelchair holding her imaginary friend for a better life as a supposedly stable Black wheels her out to the elevator and watches someone take her away. I’m not a mental health professional but wouldn’t a more healthy approach be to cure her and help her develop social skills?

Catherine Black delivers her speech to the Neurological Insitute of America in a manic state (screenshot via Watch ABC)

Catherine Black delivers her speech to the Neurological Insitute of America in a manic state (screenshot via Watch ABC)

Black's speech somehow gets a standing ovation (screenshot via Watch ABC)

Black’s speech somehow gets a standing ovation (screenshot via Watch ABC)

There are other ways it depicts mental health research and treatment in a childlike or nearly illogical way. For example, Black in a manic state, stumbles onto the Neurological Institute of America stage and insults the audience then does a whimsical speech saying famous people with mental illnesses (take your pick: Hemingway, Woolf, Van Gogh) were special and creative because they were mentally ill and that they shouldn’t have been “medicated into mediocrity.” Her speech sends the crowd of neurological professionals wild and is such of a sensation that it sends her into even more of a manic high. When her therapist addresses the very thesis of her speech shortly after (the speech is presented to us as a flashback) she brings up the fact mental illness caused these people to die by their own hand (directly or indirectly) and mental illness isn’t a good thing. Treating it means life to continue to do more great things. I found it very odd she was able to see an obvious flaw in her argument but a room full of neuroscientists ate her speech up like it was the Gospel.

Black's fiancee bleeding after coitus (screenshot via Watch ABC)

Black’s fiancee bleeding after coitus (screenshot via Watch ABC)

As this is modern-day TV, there has to be some sort of romantic element to the show. Black also has a loving boyfriend who is such of a saint you might have thought he arrived on earth straight from heaven, but of course drama arises in the relationship because of…you guessed it her manic depression. She decided to hide it from her boyfriend and now since he proposed to her after a year of dating she gets nervous. Black worries because he hasn’t seen the other side of her. After delaying her response as long as she could she felt pressure to reveal her mental illness. It wouldn’t have been a problem if she revealed it earlier as her boyfriend is very open-minded, it’s just she says she goes off of her medications for the high and it causes her to do some bad things. She can’t bring herself to say what the bad things were which includes cheating on him during a manic high and throws a sledgehammer into the relationship. The two end their relationship and get back together so many times during the show that I lost count, but she eventually did agree to be his fiancée. However, in another instance where she goes off her meds she attempts to hook up with someone at work and then gets really aggressively sexual with her fiancé. Turns out he likes her like that. Which is another troubling turn for the series because if someone truly cares for her, wouldn’t they want her to stay healthy and sane and not enable her self-destruction?
A depressed Catherine Black (screenshot via Watch ABC)

A depressed Catherine Black (screenshot via Watch ABC)

It’s easy to compare this show to House. The main characters are both doctors and both have issues. House had his drug addiction and here we’re dealing with manic depression. House also had seemingly impossible cases, but they all typically turned out okay by the end of the episode. Black Box is similar in that regard too. When it comes for Black to treat the schizophrenic woman, another doctor essentially says oh too bad there’s nothing we can do for her, when you know by the end of the episode they would be able to treat it. It’s just curiously, in this case, she reversed her cure. House, however, was far more focused on finding the patients a cure and not too much on his personal life when compared to Black Box. Fox’s own Mental was closer to the House formula, but as a summer show lasting one season it was quickly forgotten.
Black tries to prove to a patient that he's just hallucinating the fire behind her (screenshot via Watch ABC)

Black tries to prove to a patient that he’s just hallucinating the fire behind her (screenshot via Watch ABC)

The wise philosopher Madonna once said, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” and the same applies to television series on mental health. On one hand, it’s great ABC put a series on the air that actually gets you thinking and did not let cable and public television hog all the intellectual affair. It’s also great that the show could get people talking about mental illnesses because if we learned anything from Bell’s Let’s Talk campaign it’s that talking about mental illness is the best way to destigmatize it.

However, on the other hand, Black Box also perpetuates some negative stereotypes about mental illnesses. It has characters acting so over the top to the point you can’t believe they actually have an illness, it seems like they’re just acting up for whatever reason, perhaps they just want attention. To make matters worse is its main character straight up says she goes off her meds for a high. It almost makes mental illness look like some sort of choice.

Just take your meds... (screenshot via Watch ABC)

Just take your meds… (screenshot via Watch ABC)

Some of this is because TV has to be riveting and in some extent has to have its characters and their choices be black or white. Think back to virtually any reality show competition. People are wound down to basically a two-word description and anything not fitting it is left on the cutting room floor. TV likes to make bad and good, whether they are characters or their choices, easily identifiable. (Dexter is one exception to the rule.) So choosing to go off one’s meds is an easily identifiable bad choice, and helping others who are mentally ill (even though it’s her job) is an easily identifiable good choice.

Black Box's depiction of mental illness is a bit too extreme (screenshot via Watch ABC)

Black Box‘s depiction of mental illness is a bit too extreme (screenshot via Watch ABC)

However, life isn’t so black and white, especially when it comes to mental illness. Mental illnesses are typically not quite extreme as Black Box portrays them to be and although many wouldn’t deliberately sabotage efforts to get better as Black does, there’s a lot of illogical thinking going on in the heads of the mentally ill making their mental illnesses so hard to treat and quite the mystery. So I think it’s virtually impossible to create a TV show on mental health because there is no cookie cutter way to look at it. There’s often no way of understanding it—it just is, and that doesn’t transfer well to television. I mean who would like to watch a show where someone can’t stop impulsively crying or stealing or is depressed to the point that they can’t do anything? Then on top of that you can’t understand why they are doing what they’re doing and while they maybe treated to make their lives somewhat normal, there’s no magical drug or treatment that would completely cure them. It doesn’t work in TV land where there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel.
Relax, Black Box isn't as scarily bad as some make it out to be (screenshot via Watch ABC)

Relax, Black Box isn’t as scarily bad as some make it out to be (screenshot via Watch ABC)

Black Box was savaged by Matt Fowler making IGN wonder if it’s the worst show of the year. The show maybe a bit over the top and unbelievable, but I doubt it’s the worst show of the year. I don’t think Black Box is even ABC’s worst show of the year. Mixology, Killer Women and Mind Games all seem to be much worse. If we’re including cancon, Spun Out and Big Brother Canada Side Show all easily top it, but still, I doubt Black Box is long for this world.
Episode reviewed: Kiss The Sky
Black Box airs Thursdays at 10 PM on ABC
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