ABC's 'The Black Box': Medical drama goes inside its main character's head
ABC's new medical drama "The Black Box" isn't going to be the next "Grey's Anatomy" for the network, and that's not what it's supposed to be. The 13-episode limited series intends to show "brilliant neurological cases" that allow main character Catherine Black (Kelly Reilly) to shine. The only catch? Catherine suffers from manic bipolar disorder.
But similar to "Homeland's" Carrie Mathison, Reilly's character isn't defined by her mental illness. Instead, executive producer Amy Holden Jones explains at TCA 2014 winter press tour, "It is a part of the character. It is not what the show's about."
Like "House," each episode of "The Black Box" will focus on at least one neurological case. And when Catherine is on her meds, Reilly and Jones say, the doctor is at the top of her game. It's only when she comes off her medication -- which, understandably, happens in the show's first episode -- that she spirals into a manic state.
"Catherine's addicted to her mania," Reilly explains. Jones adds, "Indeed, you can be quite brilliant on it. ... They draw on the inspiration, the fire in the brain."
Jones' father was a doctor who suffered from bipolar disorder, and so growing up she would see how he would have brilliant moments when off his lithium. She also used the book "An Unquiet Mind" by Kay Redfield Jamison -- a psychologist suffering from bipolar disorder whose work is focused on studying the disease -- as some basis for the series. Both Jones' father and Jamison practiced in their fields for many years before their bipolarity came out, which is a similar situation to what Catherine finds herself in on the show.
"There's been a lot of medical shows, but there's never been a show like this. ... It's about neurology; it's about the 21st century view of the brain," Jones says. "I wanted so much to get new stories on television through a very new character. ... Stories that are about spectacular people outside of the range of normal, who have exceptional minds."
"The Black Box" will be a special effects-heavy show, as Catherine's mania leads her to have musical hallucinations. Being off her meds also causes Catherine to be hypersexual. In the pilot, Catherine's boyfriend proposes to her, which sets her so off balance she stops taking her medication and heads into a spiral.
When asked whether "The Black Box" will have a cautionary message about going off your meds, Jones and Reilly both quickly say, "Yes!" Reilly promises that there will be repercussions for Catherine's bad behavior.
"She's not a healthy person. I hope she becomes a healthy person as we figure out her character," Reilly concedes.
Vanessa Redgrave will play a regular character on "The Black Box" as Catherine's psychiatrist Dr. Hartramph. The doctor has been with Catherine since her first break, and acts as her mother figure ever since Catherine's real mother committed suicide due to her own bipolar disorder. "She is the ultimate oracle in some way, the one she goes to for help," Jones explains.
"The Black Box" premieres at 10 p.m. ET/PT April 24 on ABC.