As If We Don’t Have Enough Problems

As if we don’t have enough problems, the new ABC TV show, Black Box adds to the list of stigma-inducing media junk about bipolar disease. I am, personally and professionally, appalled at ABC’s attempt to depict a brilliant female neuroscientist with bipolar disorder.

I knew I would write about this show when I watched its pilot. But to be fair and unbiased, I watched the second episode, too. A mistake. In the interest of full transparency, I watched Black Box because I felt I should—not because I wanted to. As I watched, I found myself getting angry. That anger grew exponentially and became outrage as this so-called “drama” continued to unfold the foibles of its many characters—primarily Dr. Catherine Black, played by Kelly Reilly.

I have no quarrel with Ms. Reilly. But I have a lot to say to Dr. Black: either go back to medical school or stop practicing medicine altogether. To quote critic Hank Stuever of The Washington Post, she portrays “what television imagines bipolar disorder to be, mired in cuckoo Jekyll/Hyde stereotypes: Hours after skipping her meds, Dr. Catherine Black…enters a psychedelic la-la land of sexy sin that causes her to twirl and dance and break stemware and get the nearest man out of his shirt.”*

I won’t misuse your time or mine to discuss the abundance of flawed characters swirling around Dr. Black. Suffice it to say that it’s hard to decipher who among them is more seriously ill than Dr. Black. What a mess.

What is my point, you ask, and why am I writing about an ABC TV series that is so limited? Because the powers that be in the world of television must know that they cannot keep writing trash like this and expect thinking people to swallow it whole. Not only is the depiction of Dr. Black’s illness incredibly incorrect, but it’s also incredibly damaging and hurtful to those who are living with bipolar disorder and the people who care about, and for, them. I refuse to sit still and let this happen over and over again.

On occasion, the American entertainment industry treats bipolar disorder with compassionate understanding –Silver Linings Playbook and Homeland are two wonderful examples. This movie and TV show treat their characters with respect, dignity, and accurate medical knowledge.

But Black Box transmits the exact opposite through the airwaves. And its “biggest flaw,” says Hank Stuever, “is that it has zero intuition for its own (apparently unintentional) acts of camp, attempting to say something meaningful about the stigma of mental illness when everything about the show is pure crackpot.”

YES!! Right on, Mr. Steuver—right on! Isn’t the real and present stigma about mental illness enough for us to deal with? That stigma is something that so many people–living the best lives they can—work so diligently to overcome day after day in the workplace, in school, at home, with friends, with family…don’t they deserve a break? Aren’t those battlegrounds enough, without adding the TV screen as one more?

To the powers that be in the world of television, I say this: If you must develop a series about a female neuroscientist with bipolar disorder, do your homework. Treat her character with dignity, respect, and accurate medical facts…not with disgrace, humiliation, and untruths.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Rebecca, imagining what it would be like to watch Black Box with her. I imagine her muttering, “Oh, no! Is this what people think of me!? How do I hold my head up…at work, with my friends, and with people who know I live with this illness? How do I combat the now-even-worse stigma this ludicrous show’s creating?”

I know that Rebecca would have written a forceful, truthful letter to ABC, expressing her outrage in a gesture of protection for those who cannot, or have chosen not, to speak the truth about mental illness. I know that her words would be much more intelligent and cogent than mine. She was, after all, a brilliant writer living with bipolar disorder. She knew.

But in Rebecca’s stead, I will write the letters and continue trying to right the wrongs perpetrated against those with mental illness. I will thank the Hank Stuevers of the world who call out junk when they see it: “Black Box is a miserable mess of an ABC drama…”* Kudos, Hank—you are so very right. And when such blatant garbage is portrayed as “the truth,” I will speak up—and speak out.

To Amy Holden Jones, creator of this TV series: Shame on you. You are capable of much better—your 1988 film Mystic Pizza has proven that. If you don’t understand mental illness and its stigma, then please don’t write about it, and don’t create “entertainment” that does nothing but harm to so many. Stay with what you know. Leave bipolar disorder alone.

Don’t we have enough problems?


*Stuever, Hank. “ABC’s ‘Black Box’: She’s Unhinged and So is the Show.” The Washington Post 23 April 2014: Online.