'Black Box' review: Compelling premiere with echoes of 'Homeland'

Kelly Reilly in a scene from the new

Kelly Reilly in a scene from the new ABC medical drama "Black Box," premiering Thursday, April 24, 2014 at 10 p.m. (Credit: AP / Patrick Harbron)

DRAMA SERIES "Black Box"

WHEN | WHERE Premieres Thursday night at 10 on ABC/7

WHAT IT'S ABOUT That title means a couple of things. "Black box" is what Dr. Catherine Black (Kelly Reilly of the Robert Downey Jr. "Sherlock Holmes" movies) and her neuroscience institute call the brain, as they study and treat its maladies. But the term also describes the confines in which Black is herself contained, as a medical research hotshot who's secretly bipolar (same as Claire Danes' equally insightful and attractive "Homeland" prodigy).


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"Black Box" declares itself in a series-opening therapy session (with shrink Vanessa Redgrave) that illustrates the rush of Black's latest manic "rocket ride" -- all wild jazz riffs, bright-light flight, delirious abandon. Amid this virtual high, Black effusively tells a medical conference to not espouse "normalcy," not "medicate into mediocrity."

She's already a full-bodied character, thanks to lead Reilly's innate appeal and her hold on Catherine's sense of self. And this pilot hour has barely started. There's major drama to come with her loving but in-the-dark boyfriend (David Ajala, "Law & Order: UK"), memories of her mother's suicide, her adoring niece's resentful mom (Laura Fraser, "Breaking Bad"), a swaggering new neurosurgeon (Ditch Davey, "Spartacus: War of the Damned") and a teen patient blitzed by abrupt verve and violence.

MY SAY Thursday's hour from series creator Amy Holden Jones ("Mystic Pizza") is one of the most resonant pilots in years. The characters, their situations, the tone, an incredibly specific character perspective and thus Black's bipolar mind -- it's all clear, forceful, yet unforced and riveting.

Then ABC let critics see two later hours (episodes 3 and 7). And my heart sank. I'll still watch "Black Box," but the pilot's singular wiring -- matching distinctive cablers like "Breaking Bad" -- is being numbed into network normal. Higher-tech sets. Too many people in frame, too much activity. Jittery cameras/cutting. Maybe ABC didn't hear Black talking about patients who are cross-wired yet content: Why assume "normal" is a good thing?

"Black Box" creates compelling people while smartly pondering identity, relationships, connection -- it doesn't need the amped-up atmosphere.

BOTTOM LINE Open letter to the networks: Butt out, let characters breathe, let us be drawn in. If viewers increasingly seek "cable shows," might there be a reason?

GRADE A-

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