"Black Box" is a Black Hole for Bipolar

April 26, 2014

ABC attempted to do what no other network television show has been able to do: depict bipolar disorder realistically and openly. Unfortunately, ABC failed miserably with "Black Box" which debuted this week.

If you want to see bipolar illness portrayed in a classically cliched way, act fast. This show won't last long unless the writers wake up and smell the stereotype. "Black Box" follows Dr. Catherine Black who specializes in rare brain disorders. The audience "sees" these illnesses through her eyes as she diagnoses and treats the patients affected by them. But Dr. Black has her own secret. The "clever twist"...wait for it... is that she has bipolar disorder. 

In the pilot episode, we learn that Dr. Black has been dating Will for a year. He wants to marry her but she is afraid to commit and it isn't long before we learn why: she hasn't told him about her bipolar diagnosis. Not only does Dr. Black perpetuate the stigma of mental illness by keeping this secret, as a medical professional who specializes in brain disorders, she certainly should know better. Do know harm? I think not. What does this say about how society views mental illness still today? While I can understand if the writers are planning for Catherine Black to recognize over time that her illness isn't something to hide, the way the plot of the first episode unfolds suggests a terrible misunderstanding about how bipolar illness actually affects people.

In the pilot, Dr. Black decides to go off her medication one day and within a few hours she is in the midst of what seems to be a full blown psychotic episode. During this "psychosis" Dr. Black dances erotically to music no one else hears, she stumbles through the city streets mumbling to herself and climbing lamp posts, and she instigates a fight with a complete stranger. While any one of these events could possibly happen to someone in a manic phase of bipolar, none of them could happen within hours of ending medication. I don't know who to blame for this stereotyped portrayal of someone "crazy" but it's a shame. Finally, a show comes along that appears to offer a wide-eyed view of what bipolar looks and feels like, and instead it continues the on-going misunderstandings society has of this very treatable illness.

Those of us who understand mental illness know that people who have bipolar are not defined by it, so why paint Catherine Black as just one dimensional? Despite her apparent brilliance and obvious beauty, she is simply a crude caricature of what society believes mental illness to be. Why not take a lesson from Silver Linings Playbook? Bipolar illness isn't a one size fits all disorder. Bradley Cooper's portrayal of Pat Solatano offered a more nuanced view of what bipolar can look like. He was real. He had depth. Couldn't Catherine Black have layers too? 

While ABC may have made the first network television attempt at ending the stigma of mental illness, it may be doing more harm than good. In true Stillhopeful mom fashion, I plan on giving this show another chance. Maybe it can redeem itself before it loses every last viewer.

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