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ABC opens 'Black Box,' CBS unleashes 'Bad Teacher'

A bipolar doctor and a totally unqualified educator are two of TV's newest characters.

Vanessa Redgrave (left) plays the therapist of a psychologically fragile doctor (Kelly Reilly) in “Black Box.”
Vanessa Redgrave (left) plays the therapist of a psychologically fragile doctor (Kelly Reilly) in “Black Box.”Read moreAP

* BLACK BOX. 10 tonight, 6ABC.

* BAD TEACHER. 9:30 tonight, CBS3.

WHO'S funnier: a brilliant, bipolar doctor who's occasionally off her meds or a hard-drinking, pot-smoking middle-school teacher with no qualifications whatsoever?

CBS hopes you'll pick "Bad Teacher," its new sitcom starring Ari Graynor as gold-digging divorcee Meredith Davis, who in tonight's premiere flirts her way into a job teaching social studies.

But ABC might unintentionally have hit the funny jackpot with "Black Box," its new medical drama starring Kelly Reilly ("Heaven Is for Real") as a neurologist named Catherine Black, whose dark, dark secret is that she has a relatively common mental illness that doesn't seem to interfere with her work but leaves her personal life a bit of a mess.

What's amusing? Well, for one thing, that ABC, the network that brings us "Grey's Anatomy," a show about an entire hospital full of doctors who behave like middle-schoolers, describes "Black Box" as "cutting edge."

It's so not. Though it did occasionally set my teeth on edge.

Fans of Oliver Sacks' work (The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, "Awakenings") may enjoy watching Catherine at work, where her cases present themselves as a colorful parade of conditions that threaten to make her own seem a little dull.

"Which is the real Catherine? The medicated or the unmedicated?" asks her almost-too-good-to-be-true chef boyfriend, Will (David Ajala), in one episode. It's a good question, since dancing and reckless sexual behavior aren't out of line for TV doctors, who've come a long way since Marcus Welby. After three episodes, I still couldn't always tell the difference between manic Katherine and intensely focused Katherine.

And, given the nature of her practice - she's more a diagnostician than a surgeon - I wasn't entirely sure it mattered.

Casting Vanessa Redgrave as Dr. Black's therapist is a sign of how seriously "Black Box" takes her condition - and itself - but even Redgrave can't raise this above the level of a not very good medical procedural.

Still, you'd be better off taking your neurological issues to Dr. Black than sending your kids to Richard M. Nixon Middle School, where Meredith Davis (Graynor) isn't just a "Bad Teacher," but maybe the very worst.

Based on the characters from the 2011 movie, which featured Cameron Diaz in the title role, "Bad Teacher" asks to be taken at least a little bit seriously, with David Alan Grier as the principal, Ryan Hansen ("Veronica Mars") as the gym teacher, Kristin Davis ("Sex and the City") as an uptight perfectionist who's on to Meredith from day one and Sara Gilbert ("The Talk,'" "Roseanne") as the nerdy teacher who's desperate to befriend Meredith.

Meredith, who's taken the job to try to find another rich husband among the divorced dads, goes soft on us with unsurprising swiftness, but becoming a tiny bit more self-aware won't make her more knowledgeable.

If social studies were about teaching kids how to handle mean girls, she might have something to offer.

But it's not, and she doesn't.

Real teachers would be justified in hating it and parents may cringe, too, but "Bad Teacher" has its moments, with dialogue that's sometimes sharper than the situations.

It isn't nearly funny enough, though, to make me want to spend another period - much less the rest of the school year - watching Graynor vamp her way through American history.

On Twitter: @elgray