HeldenFiles on TV: 'Black Box,' 'Bad Teacher,' more

By Rich Heldenfels
Beacon Journal popular culture writer

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ABC's "Black Box" stars Vanessa Redgrave as Dr. Helen Hartramph and Kelly Reilly as Dr. Catherine Black. (ABC/Giovanni Rufino)

Now that Scandal has wrapped up its season, ABC wants you to check out Black Box. The high-intensity drama is going into the Scandal slot at 10 p.m. Thursday, hoping that people who have loved the craziness and dysfunction of the Kerry Washington series will be drawn to something with its own kind of extreme behavior.

That behavior is courtesy of Catherine Black (Kelly Reilly), a brilliant neurologist who is especially adept with her patients’ brain problems because she has one herself: She is bipolar. She also has a disconcerting habit of going off her meds and into bad behavior, whether it’s dancing on a ledge or sleeping with a very wrong man.

While ABC is calling this “cutting edge,” it isn’t really. Viewers can add it to a long list of dramas about brilliant, but troubled people. House, where the doctor had as many issues as his patients, came to mind. Black Box (the name is a nickname for the brain) is especially close in style and tone to the Holly Hunter series Saving Grace. Black’s demons are as vividly rendered as those of Hunter’s character — though Black Box takes place on a more glamorous stage.

The premiere, at least, finds Black in a downward spiral, talking things through with her psychiatrist (Vanessa Redgrave), dealing with her colleagues — and helping patients whose brain-related delusions are made visible to viewers. In many respects, it is standard if stylish TV fare. But in the middle of it is Reilly.

A British actress, Reilly has become an increasing presence in American productions. She co-starred with Denzel Washington in Flight and is currently on the big screen in Heaven Is for Real (as Todd Burpo’s wife, Sonja). In Black Box, her performance is commanding, compelling and by itself enough reason to give the show a couple of chances.

Also new this week is Bad Teacher, premiering at 9:31 p.m. Thursday on CBS. (Yes, 9:31. Get used to it.) Inspired by the Cameron Diaz movie, it stars Ari Graynor as Meredith Davis, a gold digger who has lost everything in a divorce. Discovering a host of rich, divorced dads at a local school, she finagles a teaching job. Then, of course, she actually has to deal with the young students.

Graynor knows how to seem selfish, vain and cunning, and the show’s supporting cast includes pros like David Alan Grier, Kristin Davis, Sara Gilbert and Veronica Mars’ Ryan Hansen. But the show is not content to let Meredith be a beast; in each of the three episodes made available preview, there’s a moment where she has to turn nice — even if that goes against everything we see about her the rest of the time. And how many times will the audience be willing to watch Meredith abandon her avoidance of principle?

It’s amusing here and there. But it would have been bolder to make this bad teacher really bad.

Martha Williamson, the producer best known for Touched by an Angel, returns to prime time with Signed, Sealed, Delivered at 8 tonight on Hallmark Channel. It involves a team of postal workers who investigate dead letters — not only where they should go, but how to solve the problems underlying these missent missives.

While drama is promised, especially with an April 27 episode dealing with homeless veterans, be prepared for heavy-handed cuteness like the workers’ deliberately quaint office and a line about going outside the mailbox. Eric Mabius of Ugly Betty stars; Valerie Harper guest-stars as the office’s new supervisor.

WGN America jumps into the original-series game with Salem at 10 tonight. As the title indicates, it is set in 17th-century Massachusetts where, WGN says, “the witches are real, but not who or what they seem.” Do not expect an accurate historical look at the time and place; one dialogue anachronism clunked against my ear very quickly. What the witches and other characters really seem to be is the basis for a violent, at times very disturbing dip into horror and suspense. And not one I would give up Mad Men to watch.

Also coming to TV: Devious Maids begins its second season at 10 tonight on Lifetime. The season finale of Parks and Recreation, an hourlong telecast with a guest appearance by first lady Michelle Obama, will be at 8 p.m. Thursday. Last Man Standing has its season finale at 8 p.m. Friday on ABC, with a rerun of a previous Last Man Standing at 8:31 p.m.

Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and Ohio.com, including the HeldenFiles Online blog, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Facebook and Twitter. You can contact him at 330-996-3582.

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