Friday, December 1, 2023

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On The Tube

Medication, no; hallucination, yes


TV042414Dr. Catherine Black (Kelly Reilly) is a world-renowned neuroscientist who specializes in bipolar disorder and who, unbeknown to her colleagues or her boyfriend, suffers from the disease herself. It’s hard to believe she’s kept it secret, given that she often skips her meds with dramatic results. In her manic phases, Dr. Black dresses like a prostitute and has sex with any nearby cabbie or colleague. I counted four instances of porn-grade intercourse in the pilot alone.

“Black Box” (Thursday, 9 p.m., ABC) glamorizes these episodes — indeed, Catherine in crazy mode is the series’ raison d’etre. If that’s not offensive enough, her research involves allowing bipolar patients to hold onto their hallucinations rather than “medicating them into mediocrity.” Here, it’s considered a happy ending when a patient gets to leave a hospital with an imaginary elf.

In other words, the series is medically indefensible. The thing is, I’m not a medical critic, but a TV critic. And as TV, “Black Box” is enjoyable nonsense. Reilly is surely in the running for the most sensual neuroscientist of all time, and Vanessa Redgrave does a good job of keeping a straight face as her personal therapist.

I don’t know if “Black Box” will go over with the viewing public, but imaginary elves are sure to love it.


bad teacher“Bad Teacher”

Thursday, 8:30 p.m. (CBS)

In the TV-series adaptation of the feature film, a gold-digging blond hottie named Meredith (Ari Graynor) scams her way into being a middle-school teacher after a divorce leaves her penniless. Wearing a leather miniskirt and leopard-print top to class, she plans to meet an eligible single dad and split ASAP. But Meredith’s heart goes out to a group of bullied girls who need a lesson in female empowerment.

In her stiletto heels, Meredith walks through a minefield of sexual politics, and some viewers will recoil at the female stereotypes on display. But to its credit, the series creates an absurd setting for Meredith’s brand of post-feminism — so absurd that it becomes possible to laugh at the outrageous conceit. Graynor goes skillfully over the top as the trashiest teacher imaginable, and she gets an assist from Kristin Davis and David Alan Grier as ridiculous fellow faculty members.

“Walk in there like you own the place!” Meredith instructs the bullied girls as they work up the courage to enter the cafeteria.

Even a Bad Teacher occasionally has good advice.


starvinginsuburbia“Starving in Suburbia”

Saturday, 7 p.m. (Lifetime)

The title makes this teen-anorexia tale sound like a disease-of-the-week TV movie. It is, I guess, but there’s so much more to it than that. “Starving in Suburbia” creates an authentic family dynamic for Hannah (Laura Slade Wiggins), a sweet high school dance enthusiast who starts believing she’s too fat. Hannah is so likable, and her relationship with friends and family is so believable, that you find yourself shouting “don’t do it!” when she starts visiting a pro-anorexia website.

Hannah’s interactions with the website allow the filmmakers to get inside her head. These scenes have a surreal quality with nightmarish imagery and sound. I won’t soon forget the pictures of emaciated girls with “DON’T EAT” tattooed on their torsos.

I recommend that girls watch “Starving in Suburbia.” And one final recommendation: EAT!


silicon valley“Silicon Valley”

Sunday, 9 p.m. (HBO)

Mike Judge’s satire of nerd-billionaire tech culture is yet another reason to subscribe to HBO, immediately. In this week’s masterful episode, mumbling hero Richard (Thomas Middleditch) struggles to articulate a vision for his fledgling startup company. Indeed, he struggles to articulate anything. He’s a bundle of nerves, wondering whether he should have taken $10 million for his compression algorithm rather than trying to build his own empire around it.

Richard doesn’t have the look of an emperor — but then again, neither does tech mogul Peter Gregory (Christopher Evan Welch), who throws an extravagant ancient-Roman-themed party for himself. The joke is that Gregory is just a version of Richard farther down the road, unimaginably rich and powerful but still a pathetic coder at heart.

Can Richard escape that fate? “Silicon Valley” holds out the slightest hope that he will, hinting at humanity inside that geeky exterior. Similarly, the series itself shows signs of having a heart, which distinguishes it from the usual heartless satire.

Luckily, you don’t have to be a nerd-billionaire to afford an HBO subscription.


john oliver“Last Week Tonight with John Oliver”

Sunday, 10 p.m. (HBO)

John Oliver, a star correspondent for “The Daily Show,” got his chance to host last summer when Jon Stewart took a break. He did such a spectacular job that I felt guilty for wishing Stewart would postpone his return for a few more weeks. Shortly thereafter, Oliver left to develop his own satirical news program, which begins this week on HBO. Displaying typical British gallantry, Oliver chose a weekly Sunday slot so as not to compete with Stewart on weekdays.

With his trenchant wit and finely tuned sense of the absurd, Oliver is yet another top-shelf comedian pretending to be a network anchor. The TV schedule is full of them, including Stephen Colbert of “The Colbert Report” and Cecily Strong of “Saturday Night Live.” Given the failings of CNN, Fox, MSNBC et al., we should thank our lucky stars for such high-quality fake news. CV

Dean Robbins is a syndicated TV columnist from Madison, Wis. He graduated from Grinnell College and went on to become an award-winning journalist, but he’s been a committed couch potato long before he figured out a way to get paid for watching TV. See more of his work at

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