A bipolar doctor probes the brain on ‘Black Box’

04/24/2014 5:53 AM

04/24/2014 5:53 AM

In ABC’s “Black Box,” a drama about a brilliant yet troubled neuroscientist, we learn that the title is a term used by doctors to describe the human brain because it’s “the ultimate mystery.” But an equally baffling mystery might be how this underdeveloped, clumsily rendered show ever made it onto the airwaves.

What we do know is this: British actress Kelly Reilly plays Dr. Catherine Black, who some call the “Marco Polo of the Brain.” She’s the medical director of a state-of-the-art neurological center in New York where she deals with patients from all over the world because, well, she’s got mad skills.

Ah, but if television has taught us anything in recent years, it’s that, when a lead character is a professional dynamo, he or she must be plagued with a very messy personal life, or afflicted with a mental disease – or both. Let’s call it the Carrie Mathison Rule.

In this case, Black is bipolar, and she’s intent on keeping it a secret from colleagues and loved ones. There’s only one person who knows everything – her comforting psychiatrist, Dr. Helen Hartramph (Vanessa Redgrave).

Black tends to purposefully go off her meds, the better to forget about her turbulent youth and how her mother, who also suffered from manic depression, committed suicide. When free of pills, she experiences an exciting kind of euphoria.

“It’s a freakin’ rocket ride,” she explains.

But it’s also terrifying. She has delusions of grandeur, experiences strange hallucinations and becomes hypersexual, often with the wrong kind of people. Oh, and she also dances. A lot.

It’s a role that requires Reilly to shift into several different gears and, sadly, she seems overmatched. You can see why the casting folks craved her. She’s a fiery beauty who can convey empathy and a certain level of vulnerability. But that’s not quite enough, and you come away doubting that Reilly has the charismatic firepower, or range, to carry the show.

Unfortunately, she doesn’t get much help from her writers, who bog the actress down with sometimes-trite dialogue and a script laden with exposition. And the problems with “Black Box” don’t stop there. While Redgrave, as usual, is a pleasure to watch, the same can’t be said for a womanizing neurosurgeon played by Ditch Davey who is so cartoonishly full of himself that you can’t help but wince when he’s on screen.

When to watch: 9 p.m. Thursday, ABC

Chuck Barney/Contra Costa Times

Subhead

If there’s one thing the new CBS sitcom “Bad Teacher” proves, it’s that you can’t keep a bad thing down.

The sitcom is based on the 2011 film starring Cameron Diaz (also one of the sitcom’s producers) as a gold-digging teacher from hell.

The film followed the “bad” template set by “Bad Santa” and continued more recently by “Bad Grandpa,” but wasn’t as funny as it could have been. The sitcom is funnier than the film, perhaps because it’s working in a smaller time-frame but also because many of the performances are winning.

The set-up is that a buxom “trophy wife” named Meredith Davis (Ari Graynor) learns after her divorce from her rich, cheating husband that she’s not get any of his money because of a pre-nup. Naturally, the news prompts her to get a job as a teacher in order to meet rich, single dads so she can continue the lifestyle to which she’s become accustomed.

She’s completely unqualified for the job, but is hired anyway after manipulatively sympathizing with Principal Carl Gaines (David Alan Grier) about his recent divorce.

She makes a splash on her first day both in the hallways and in the teachers’ lounge, earning the immediate enmity of prim, by-the-book veteran history teacher Ginny (Kristin Davis), slavish admiration from frumpy biology teacher Irene (Sara Gilbert) and a reminder from gym teacher Joel (Ryan Hansen) that they went to high school together and that he may have been one of the few guys she didn’t hook up with.

At every turn, Meredith’s plan to land a hunky meal ticket is short-circuited by her inner warmth and concern for the underdog – particularly a friend’s stepdaughter, Lily (Sara Rodier), too smart to be treated with respect by the school “mean girls.”

The show has its funny moments, and the cast is pretty good, especially the younger actors. In addition to Rodier as a kind of flesh and blood Lisa Simpson, Grace Kaufman does a superb job as Bronwen, the daughter of a wealthy real estate mogul who wants to date Meredith but only if his daughter approves. She does not, to put it mildly. Kristin Davis is quite good but under-utilized here.

The show, created by Hilary Winston, is at its best when teacher really is “bad.” At those moments, it approaches a wicked, and wickedly funny, level of satire. As you might expect, though, every episode ends with a warm and fuzzy moment – well, as warm and fuzzy as the “Bad Teacher” can be.

When to watch: 8:31 p.m. Thursday, CBS

David Wiegand/San Francisco Chronicle

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