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“Black Box” has troubles despite itself

Jeff Simon

“Every day I struggle with that very word ‘normal,’ ” she says to her shrink. She’s not being a drama queen about it either. She’s a scientist, a neurologist to be specific. When she delivered a professional address to a peer group of fellow neurologists (Newsweek called her “the Marco Polo of the Brain”), she was higher than a kite.

It’s not drugs she was high on though. Drugs are what keep her sane and grounded and balanced. It was herself. That’s because she’s bipolar and all too readily admits, “I have a history of noncompliance. I have a tendency to go off the meds.”

And when she does, she also finally admits to her boyfriend of a year (who’s only now just finding out about her condition), “Sometimes I do very bad things.”

Like, for instance, picking up nameless limo drivers and before they even make it into her hotel room, engaging in heavy petting in the hotel hallway, to the consternation of the “normal” folks four doors down waiting for the elevator.

ABC’s “Black Box” is good disturbing television for the Thursday “Scandal” time slot. It is, like its bipolar subject Dr. Catherine Black (played juicily by Kelly Reilly) a bit more exhausting than most 10 p.m. shows are but where else, for pity’s sake, would we find a new TV series whose opening minutes are a chunk of psychotheraphy with Dr. Black as the patient and – are you ready – the majestic Vanessa Redgrave as the shrink who sometimes has to remind Catherine Black that it’s the medication that “allows you live long enough to do your best work. Do you want to be exceptional and dead?”

When her long-suffering boyfriend is finally allowed to see the hyper-sexual, “crazy” Catherine Black who dances to unheard music in stairwells, he’s candid enough to admit that, as grounded as he is, he, uhhhh, kind of liked what she did to him before when she was, for the first time with him, on the “freaking rocket ride” of full mania.

That may spice up their relationship at well-appointed times, but it won’t necessarily help her relationship with the teen daughter she had to give up at birth or the patients whose very lives depend on her diagnostic insight (in the opening pilot episode they included an old woman with Alzheimer’s who hallucinated a dwarf companion and a teen boy with a brain tumor who couldn’t talk or stop painting the hospital waiting room.)

We’ve seen crazy genius heroes on TV long enough now to know that they’ve become a genre – “Monk,” “House,” “Elementary.” The show ABC’s “Black Box” most closely resembles, in fact, is TNT’s “Perception” starring Eric McCormick as a schizophrenic who teaches neurology at a university in his spare time.

Thereby hangs a tale. “Black Box” was created years ago by Amy Holden Jones, a 1971 graduate of the Buffalo Seminary, the sister of composer Ralph Jones and the wife of the great cinematographer Michael Chapman (“Raging Bull.”)

Jones’ credits have been fascinating for almost 35 years now, ever since she first gave the world the immortally titled “Slumber Party Massacre” and followed it up with “Mystic Pizza,” “Indecent Proposal” and all those “Beethoven” St. Bernard movies.

What is the notable misfortune of “Black Box” – a new TV show deserving renewal if all 12 shows wind up to be as strong as its admittedly enervating opening pilot episode – is that it opened smack dab in the middle of a lurid and much larger “Hollywood scandal” story that burst into full bloom last week and threatens more down the road.

And that story involves the executive producer of “Black Box” who rescued Amy Holden Jones’ script from limbo and began to develop it into a series (where he had, before, also given us “House”).

His name is Bryan Singer, the powerhouse whose work is about to hit the channels of hype big time in a few weeks when his new “X-Men” movie opens.

At this moment, with “Black Box” on the air and “X-Men” sitting there waiting to come down the chute, Singer ought to be charging around Hype World everywhere gabbing up a storm and selling his wares like a pitchman hawking potato peelers on the Atlantic City boardwalk in the ’30’s.

He’s got stuff to sell, Singer – pretty good stuff like Jones’ “Black Box” and very big stuff like the newest installment in the megabuck fantasy “X-Men” series.

But early last week, a 31-year-old man named Michael Egan charged Singer with doing “very bad things” of his own by sexually violating Egan years ago when he was an underaged boy. Egan says he was passed around by a community of big shot Hollywood chickenhawks who make a habit of depredations of innocence.

After Egan’s lawyer announced his lawsuit against Singer, he also announced lawsuits against three other men, including onetime NBC executive Garth Ancier, the man said to have had a lot to do in executive suites with bringing Aaron Sorkin’s “The West Wing” to prime-time television.

And that’s where this undeniably sordid tabloid tale gets more tragically interesting than either “Black Box” on prime time or a new “X-Men” fantasy at the megaplex – and along with it potentially quite injurious to TV and movies in general.

Whatever Singer and Ancier and their friends do or don’t do for recreation, there is enormous evidence that both Singer and Ancier have been good for prime-time television.

Some observers in Hollywood’s gay community have announced they’re bracing for a “witch hunt” by media exploitationists and hungry lawyers looking for quick bucks, as lawsuits rain down on a community where sexual exploitation is legendarily commonplace, including, perhaps, gross and felonious mistreatment of the underaged.

Some Hollywood journalists are saying, quite objectively, that from everything now routinely known about a “pool party” subculture of show business bigwigs using beautiful young people of all genders as sex toys, the possibilities for ever-widening ripples of “Hollywood Scandal” are substantial.

If Egan’s lawyer has any kind of supported facts backing up his allegations, this could indeed go well beyond the individual quick-hit nature of Hollywood scandals in the pre-Internet era (where big names – Polanski, say, or now Singer – suffer damage to their reputations and fight uphill to get anything at all back).

If there is, indeed, a “subculture” about to be exposed to public scrutiny as never before, “Black Box” could – tragically, undeservedly and accidentally – become collateral damage because it is thought hopelessly tainted by someone in the show’s pedigree.

Please understand. We can all agree that every genuinely rotten abuser and despoiler of youth caught doing truly “very bad things” as the law would define them, should suffer whatever consequences justice can mete out. (Even though the whole thing, at this stage, seems to promise an O.J.-style mess of trials by media on one side and wealth and privileged lawyering on the other.)

But consider the case of “Black Box” a pretty good TV show fighting for a network berth and a solid viewership with one huge behind-the-camera name now on its opening credit roll not exactly calculated to earn either public or media allegiance.

I don’t know about you but when you’ve got such a workable idea from Amy Holden Jones and Vanessa Redgrave, no less, in the weekly cast, you don’t want to see anything so promising wasted by our ever-growing scandal machine in the TMZ.


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