NEW YORK — ABC's brainy new medical drama Black Box does a neat trick: It dares viewers to imagine for themselves the cost-benefit ratio of addiction, and it does it without taking a firm stand.
It does it in the person of lovely, top-of-her-field Dr. Catherine Black, known as "the Marco Polo of the brain," who helps patients navigate a range of neurological disorders.
She also secretly wrestles with one of her own: She's bipolar.
Meanwhile, she's addicted to the mind- expanding, sometimes rapturous but ultimately dangerous effects of skipping the meds that keep her "normalized," and letting her condition run full tilt.
"This show is not a generic examination of bipolarity — not at all," says star Kelly Reilly. "This is about one woman who is an addict to her disease. The disease is treatable. But it calls for a lifetime of commitment and rearranging medications to see what works and what doesn't work — and fighting the battle of deciding whether or not you want to take them."
Black Box, which premieres Thursday on ABC, pulls a 180 on the plague of addiction: Catherine must Just Say Yes to the drugs that will keep this wild child tamed. Yet sometimes she just can't. Or won't.
She is played by the England-born Reilly, who co-starred with Denzel Washington in the film Flight; appeared in the two Sherlock Holmes films headlined by Robert Downey Jr.; and starred in Above Suspicion, a British TV crime drama.
One recent day on Stage B at New York's Silvercup Studios, Reilly met with a reporter in her character's office in the tony Neuroscience Research and Treatment Center, aka The Cube, where Black and her colleagues probe the brain's mysteries.
The show also stars Vanessa Redgrave as Catherine's shrink, Terry Kinney as the Cube's chief of staff, Ditch Davey as a womanizing neurosurgeon on the team, and David Ajala as Catherine's restaurateur boyfriend.
"This is not a life that's ever going to be straight and narrow for Catherine," Reilly says. "It's always going to be a bit wobbly: Is she gonna go off crazy again, or is she going to try to toe the line? She's a rule-breaker by nature who takes risks. But I think she longs for what normal might feel like."
The series was created by Amy Holden Jones, whose credits include the films Mystic Pizza and Indecent Proposal.
Jones comes to Black Box well prepared, having as a girl been "home-schooled in bipolar," as she puts it: Her father was a practicing physician until he was 70 despite having bipolar disorder and suffering periodic breakdowns.
"There are highly functional bipolar people," Jones says, and the condition is more common than is generally suspected.
"You may think your only experience of it is on Homeland," she says, referring to the Showtime thriller whose CIA heroine, played by Claire Danes, suffers notably from bipolar disorder. "But that's probably not the case." You might know someone who's bipolar and keeping it private, she says.
Jones agrees that Black Box isn't just a show about an illness.
"The series has an addiction metaphor," she says. "And the high does provide a gift."
"It's an incomparable asset," says fellow executive producer Ilene Chaiken (The L Word). "It makes Catherine the great doctor she is. But that doesn't mean the condition isn't also tragic and painful."
While she struggles with her personal tug of war, Catherine is up to her ears in patients beset by a wild range of complaints (all of them documented cases, according to the show). One client peers in the mirror and sees a walking corpse. Another, who is legally blind, hallucinates visions in dazzling color. Another has a best friend and relied-on companion who doesn't exist.
These are all confounding manifestations of the brain which, according to Black Box gospel, dwarfs even the far reaches of the universe in its vast complexity and presents this tantalizing paradox: Here is a thinking machine too complicated to be understood, even by itself.
What, then, is "normal" operation for the brain? In her manic state, Catherine insists that medication dooms you to mediocrity.
Her psychiatrist disagrees, arguing that Catherine's meds protect her from mood swings that could lead to self- destruction or even suicide: "It allows you to live long enough to do your best work."
Fine. But would you, the viewer, be able to resist the lure of transcendence Catherine falls prey to routinely?
"This," says Reilly, "is what I hope will be the conversation viewers have."