In a time when there are more worthy hours of television than there are hours in the day, it would be a relief if shows could be counted on to be as terrible as their log lines suggest. Instead, we have gravity-defying shows like iZombie and Lucifer to prove that a premise is only as silly as its execution. Add to this list CBS’ BrainDead, a political satire built on such a wacky conceit, it practically demands to be mocked. And yet the show is clever, brisk, and compelling, and it succeeds not by dancing around its inherent weirdness, but by zealously embracing it.
That BrainDead works in spite of itself shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise since it was created by Robert King and Michelle King, the shrewd showrunners who turned a tabloid cliché into one of television’s most rewarding dramas with The Good Wife. And now for something completely different, the Kings return with a madcap sci-fi comedy about alien critters that burrow into the brains of congressional leaders, forcing them to become obstructionist automatons. It’s a clumsy, on-the-nose metaphor for D.C. gridlock, but the show is infused with enough giddiness and mischief that to point out the obviousness of its underlying themes would be… well, obvious. The Kings seem to understand they’re making a straightforward Body Snatchers riff, and they’ve just chosen an opportune moment in which to do it.
As if to quell any doubts about its topicality, the pilot introduces itself with a cacophonous montage of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton stump speeches, which concentrates all the exasperation of the current election cycle into a couple of shrill, bombastic minutes. After the mercifully brief reminder of the state of affairs on Capitol Hill, BrainDead dives straight into a left-field explanation that is somehow comforting. A curious meteor lands in a Russian body of water and is transported for further study to D.C., where an army of ant-like critters pour out of it by the thousands when no one is paying attention. Once freed from their extraterrestrial method of transportation, the bugs waste no time in tracking down politicians and their staffers, crawling into their ears, and forcing out a huge chunk of their gray matter. Symptoms of infestation include a personality transplant—triple-scotch lunchers become teetotaling squares overnight—and a sudden obsession with The Cars’ “You Might Think.”
The hopelessly divided Democratic and Republican congresspersons are so busy haggling over the federal budget in the hopes of staving off a government shutdown, they don’t even notice all the weird behavior. Enter Laurel Healy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), the only holdout in a family of career politicians. Her brother Luke (Danny Pino) is the majority whip for Senate Democrats, while Laurel just wants to focus on making her documentaries, which, of course, focus on hilariously esoteric subjects. At the insistence of Healy patriarch Dean (Zach Grenier), Laurel agrees to work in Luke’s office temporarily in exchange for film funding. But Laurel’s documentation of Melanesian choirs seems far less urgent once she keys in on the strange happenings in the Capitol. “You’re outnumbered,” says one Stepford pol when Laurel starts asking too many questions. “By who?” says Laurel. “By the people you’re outnumbered by.”
That arch exchange sums up BrainDead’s sensibility, which is equal parts House Of Cards and Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks! And despite it’s wacky premise, at times the show feels surprisingly similar to The Good Wife, if only because of David Buckley’s string-heavy score and the especially long first acts preceding each episode’s title card—a King and King signature. But BrainDead is always playful. The “previously on” segments are delivered in folk-song form, and the episode titles could have been cribbed from a C-SPAN 2 plenary session. (The pilot is called “The Insanity Principle: How Extremism In Politics Is Threatening Democracy In The 21st Century.”)
If this all sounds too twee for human consumption, it’s because BrainDead is the sort of show that simply doesn’t work as a written synopsis. There’s also a bit of a learning curve to its whiplash-inducing tonal shifts, which include moments when the brain-bug phenomenon feels genuinely frightening. Ric Ocasek has never sounded so ominous. Wisely, the Kings keep all the goofiness confined to the plot and keep the characters straight-faced. Winstead is terrific as Laurel, as is Tony Shalhoub as Republican Senator Red Wheatus, an early victim of the cranial critters. Kudos is also due Johnny Ray Gill, who follows up his breakthrough performance in Underground with a regular role as a savant who stumbles into the mystery and provides much-needed scientific context.
Gill’s character is straight out of a summer blockbuster, which BrainDead resembles as much as CBS’ other quirky summer genre series including Zoo, Under The Dome, and Extant. Like those shows, BrainDead appears to suffer from a severely limited premise. The plot itself can be stretched out to fit multiple seasons, and it helps that the show is doing 13-episode seasons rather than the 22-episode seasons that gradually enervated The Good Wife. But it remains to be seen how much story can be told using characters whose personalities are stripped away from them shortly after their introduction. Many of BrainDead’s main characters are impossible to read and have an agenda that’s impossible to discern. Which, for a contemporary political satire, is probably the point.