When she’s on her medications, Dr. Catherine Black is brilliant. Off her meds, she may be even more brilliant, but she’s dangerous, at least to herself.
And that’s the tension of ABC’s newest medical procedural, “Black Box,” premiering Thursday, April 24. Black (Kelly Reilly) is a neurologist and medical director of a neurological center known as The Cube.
Black is gorgeous and involved with two dashing men. She also happens to be bipolar, which she keeps a secret at work.
Her dilemma is whether she wants to live a proscribed life, on many medications and engaged to her restaurateur boyfriend (David Ajala), or off them, riding the waves of inspiration that engulf her and having fierce sex with other men.
When manic, she loves life on the edge, and she gets so perilously close, it’s inevitable that she will fall. Yet it’s then that she feels completely alive.
On a recent frigid day, at a sprawling New York university, which asked ABC to keep its identity secret because apparently allowing a show to film is declasse, Reilly hurries down a ramp, her white lab coat catching air.
“She is complicated,” Reilly tells Zap2it about her character. “She has many different sides to her. I get to play many different women in one character. An unedited side of her comes out. There’s the medicated and the unmedicated side of her. There’s the side that is nurturing and loving and the side that wants to break everything in the room.”
It’s revealed in the pilot that Black has a teenager, Esme (Siobhan Williams). Black’s brother and sister-in-law have raised her as their own, and the girl doesn’t know who her biological mother is.
Reagan Black (Laura Fraser, “Breaking Bad”) is terrified that the girl loves her aunt Catherine more than the woman she knows as Mom. Soon, she realizes Esme may be exhibiting signs of being bipolar.
At work, Black connects with patients on a deep level. Each week features real cases, and when patients are on-screen, their problems are shown from their perspectives. In one, a man has “alien hand” syndrome and doesn’t have control of his hand. He is a mild bank teller until he’s a fearless bank robber who also gropes women.
In an upcoming episode, a woman turning 50 is acting odd. She’s fighting the effects of aging by constantly exercising, but she’s behaving strangely and, it turns out, only seeing half of what’s in front of her.
Doctors cannot figure out why until Black makes the connection. The patient and Dr. Ian Bickman (Ditch Davey) know each other from volunteering at a homeless shelter. Black realizes the woman had contracted tuberculosis, which was altering her brain.
Drs. Bickman and Black are having an affair.
“He is at the top of his game,” Davey says. “I see him as being almost machinelike.”
As he speaks, extras mill about. One large, bearded man in layers of clothes is pacing, agitated, mumbling. Mothers bring children to wardrobe racks to pick out uniforms. The kids are playing students on a field trip. As they’re about to cross the street, a man brandishing a cleaver swings wildly. A mom chaperoning proves herself brave.
When not in front of the camera, Reilly reverts to a British accent, Davey to Australian. They have both moved to New York and researched their roles by talking with physicians.
“I didn’t know anything about neurology,” Reilly says. “I spent a lot of time speaking with neurologists. Most of the time they are not fixing things. With disorders of the brain, they don’t know very much. They have to play a waiting game. They have to do much more problem solving. They have to think in a way that is more abstract.”
She spoke with one of the top Harvard neurologists and asked about the most common misconceptions about the field.
“There are things we can cure,” Reilly says she learned. “There are solutions even if not absolute cures; there are treatments and always new things to be discovered. For me, what I do for a job, neurology is another area of research. I went way deep into the bipolar mind. I don’t want to sink into that naively. I want to be as respectful as possible.”
Black meets with her psychiatrist, Dr. Helen Hartramph, played by Vanessa Redgrave. Though Redgrave is not on-screen enough, when she is, it’s magical.
“When I heard she had agreed to do this, it justified me doing it,” Reilly says.
At a press conference, show creator Amy Holden Jones says, “There have been a lot of medical shows, 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.”
TV has seen both recently, though not in the same character. Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) on “Homeland” is bipolar. And Dr. Daniel Pierce (Eric McCormack) is a paranoid schizophrenic neuroscientist on “Perception.”
There are fascinating stories to mine for this show, and many involved with it hope it sparks debate.
“This is a subject matter people should hear about and know,” Davey says. “Just because a guy walks by their door at 8 every night, mumbling to himself, he could be treatable. What we as a community have to deal with, and from a societal point of view, that is important.”
He hopes the show can spark a national “conversation, that is a starting point,” Davey says. “And that is what art is about, and maybe we can help each other.”