Op-ed pick: TV shows do a poor job portraying mental illness

“Black Box,” ABC’s new medical drama about a bipolar neuroscientist, is getting scathing reviews. Here’s an excerpt of Hank Stuever’s from the Washington Post:

When [neuroscientist] Catherine enters a manic phase, “Black Box” fires up the smooth jazz saxophone solo, and that’s how you know she’s a danger to herself and others: It suddenly sounds like an outdoor wine festival.

Beyond the campiness, Esther Breger in the New Republic says, there’s a bigger problem: “Black Box” is one of many series that portray mental illness as a superpower.

Catherine…is apparently amazing at her job, and “Black Box” doesn’t hesitate to draw a connection between her genius and her illness: “Catherine has an insight into her patients that no one else has, allowing her to communicate with them on a different level,” according to ABC’s press notes. She’s fabulously empathetic and intuitive, somehow able to see what all the other doctors miss (though her cases should be familiar to anyone who reads Oliver Sacks’s essays). That’s because, the show keeps reminding us, mental illness goes along with greatness. “Hemingway. Sylvia Plath. Billie Holiday. Dickens. Melville. These are just a few of the great minds that suffered from a fine madness. Should they be medicated into mediocrity?” Catherine asks after skipping her meds.

Breger says the same “mental illness as superpower” idea runs through “House,” “Bones” and “Homeland.” Read her whole column here.

The show debuted last night.

  • Bethjock

    Agreed. Without a doubt mental illness can harbor genius. More often though it is a life of struggle, illness and a search for understanding.

  • davehoug

    When has a TV show EVER shown the reality of any occupation? Sure it shows us great visuals of some aspects, but it doesn’t even try to inform on the whole of a subject, just the most interesting aspects. CSI and others add to but never give us the complete picture……because often the complete picture’s boring and mundane 95% of the job does not get ratings.

  • Bess Cellars

    For mental illness treatment, from a Minnesota novelist’s perspective, see James Casper’s recently published ‘Everywhere in Chains’. Based in Minnesota, clinical psychologist Esther Corrigan, has the whole picture – past, present and nightmarish future – if nothing changes.