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.
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.
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 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?
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.
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.
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.