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Black Box

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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, 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 ticks 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.

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