Mary Elizabeth Winstead (CBS)

BrainDead, the new sci-fi political satire from The Good Wife creators Robert King and Michelle King, begins with the all-too familiar sight of real-life politicians like Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, and Hillary Clinton, on a wall of TV screens, belting out their stump speeches. Over the rising cacophony, a legend appears:

“In the year 2016 there was a growing sense that people were losing their minds… and no one knew why… until now.”

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The eventual explanation offered—alien ants from a crashed meteor are eating away the brains of American politicians—marks out BrainDead as a promising, if tonally uncertain, whack at mocking the political system. It also muddies its own mission, in that viewer frustration at what’s been—let’s face it—an unprecedentedly ridiculous election cycle is not really the target of the show’s comic vitriol. Sure, regardless of your political stripe, there’s been a lot of depressingly shrill bullshit this time around—but even that is preferable to the prospect of meteor-borne little brain-borers chomping away at politicians’ lobes until they essentially poop their personality and decision-making centers out of their ears.

Or is it? The film drops us into the middle of a Washington D.C. mired in partisan gridlock and held hostage by Democratic and Republican lawmakers far too opportunistic, power-hungry, or just plain incompetent (or drunk) to do anything but maintain the jabbering status quo—even as a government shutdown looms, threatening, as the show asserts several times, “over 100,000 government workers.” Our guide through this mess is Lauren Healy (an alertly no-nonsense Mary Elizabeth Winstead), the documentarian daughter of a powerful political family, who’s coerced into joining the staff of her handsome, glad-handing Senator brother, Luke (Scandal’s Danny Pino) by her power-player dad (Zach Grenier). Winstead (no stranger to paranoid alien invasions) is a fine choice, especially once her reluctant position as functionary and spy (for her manipulative father) gives way to spunky investigator, after an anguished constituent (Nilaja Sun) shows her a creepy recording of her seaman husband opening a mysterious crate and asserts, “My husband is not my husband any more.”

Setting up a loopy sci-fi premise in 45 minutes is hard stuff, and BrainDead struggles to find its tone in this first episode. There’s the pre-brain-bug political material, which is pointed, but hardly revelatory. (Depending on which news network analog an office is tuned to, strident blame for the impending shutdown is placed on either party. And after one Senator breaks the gridlock, his compromise is alternately termed “reaching across the aisle” or “betrayal.”) Pino’s Democratic whip uses his authority to help fix an old lady’s Social Security troubles. But he’s also willing to let the government shut down in order to stick it to the Republicans come election time, even though an aide (Graceland’s Aaron Tveit) to boozehound GOP Senator Red Wheatus (Tony Shalhoub, clearly warming up for some twinkly comic menace) brokers a last-minute deal that could avert it. (He’s also inadvertently responsible for the alien invasion, since the Russian recovery effort is botched thanks to a lack of promised American funds.)

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On the sci-fi front, BrainDead careens back and forth between silly, madcap premise-setting (David Buckley’s score recalls Danny Elfman’s from Mars Attacks!), and moderately successful Invasion Of The Body Snatchers creepiness. Winstead keeps seeing people staring emotionlessly at her throughout her investigations (the post-shutdown empty congressional halls add to the unease), and everyone involved in shipping the Russian meteor to the States fobs her off with the exact same phrases. There’s a ticklingly unsettling comic moment when Laurel anticipates those same words spoken by the smiling husband of the woman who brought her the video—who also placidly assures her that everything’s fine now. (“Laurel, I’m happy now—don’t question happiness.”) Part of the problem with the show’s tone may be the expositional nature of pilots (helpfully, the first scene is at a party, necessitating a lot of introductions), but one suspects some CBS squareness creep as well. (That being said, BrainDead is miles more assured—and less prone to unintentional comedy—than previous, recent CBS offerings like Zoo or Under The Dome.)

There’s nothing especially scary about the aliens at first—they’re essentially just ants at this point—and, when they start to take over people’s brains (the worried wife, Shalhoub’s dipsomaniac Senator, who immediately switches to gross-looking health smoothies) it seems that the series is going to squander the fear factor. However, in the show’s big special effects scene, there’s some genuine ickiness. That’s where the ear-pooping comes in, as Shalhoub bangs the side of his alien-invaded head until a chunk of brain plops onto his pillow—which, even accompanied as it is by some overdone splashy sound effects, is about as close to Cronenberg-ian body horror as CBS is going to get.

Danny Pino, Mary Elizabeth Winstead (CBS)

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Throughout, there are plenty of promising touches to warrant optimism. Winstead makes an eminently watchable, formidable heroine, and her relationship with Pino’s slick Senator brother is jabbingly contentious enough to be convincing as grown siblings who can still push each others’ buttons. (Repeatedly smacking him upon discovering him at his aide/mistress’ townhouse, she makes this powerful statesman flinch as only little sisters can.) And Winstead’s Laurel has a nice, warring chemistry with Tveit’s Gareth, their energetic ideological sparring clearly BrainDead’s model for a more productive political discourse. Teasing Laurel over the subject of her new, uncompromisingly uncommercial film (about religious music of the Solomon Islands), Gareth zings her, saying, “Oh, so you’re selling out.” And Laurel forces a meeting at one point by loudly suggesting that they’re planning to meet later at a pro-choice rally. In the world of BrainDead—with or without brain-eating space ants—a pair of smart, funny people who can exchange ideas and a little banter is the true bipartisanship.

Which returns to the question of what BrainDead is out to accomplish in its short, 13-episode first season. As the episode ends, the ants are already making serious headway (so to speak), taking over Shalhoub’s now-energized Senator, whose creepily reasonable pitch to a wary Democratic colleague is the essence of “Washington outsider.” “What is a Democrat these days?,” Shalhoub purrs, “What is a Republican? It’s a brand.” Meanwhile, Laurel and Gareth argue about the impending, global-warming-caused disappearance of the Solomons, with Laurel’s “I don’t like it when things disappear” met with Gareth’s rejoinder that that sounds like “a very Republican thing to say.” In its first episode, BrainDead, in striving for reasonableness, sets out a narratively (if not politically) conservative ideal, essentially saying that if we could all just listen and find some common ground, we could avert the seemingly intractable stagnation of public discourse. The brain-bugs are offering us one way to do that, while two politically opposed but rational (and flirty) idealists are, if inadvertently, seeking out another. The race to see which ideology wins in the end promises, in this entertaining first outing, to be a worthwhile mix of sci-fi, alien invasion weirdness (and occasional, squeal-inducing grossness) and social commentary. With brain bugs.

Stray observations

  • Each episode of the series is titled like a comically dry and extended title of a poli-sci seminar you’d inevitably sleep through. The full title of this one is “The Insanity Principle: How Extremism In Politics Is Threatening Democracy In The 21st Century.” (Apologies for the ellipses in the article header—the thing just won’t fit otherwise.)
  • In the most genuinely frightening sequence of the pilot, The Wire’s Michael Potts’ plays Smithsonian scientist Dr. Daudier, who, when discovered mid-takeover by Laurel, has an explosively shocking reaction in the back of a speeding ambulance. Potts—in what looks like will be his only appearance—delivers the most affecting performance here, too, his terrified defiance against the bugs robbing him of his memory. Asked for his birthdate, Potts’ makes Daudier’s “Oh God, I can’t remember” bring home the series darkest aspects most feelingly.
  • Same goes for the scene where Sun’s now-possessed husband forces her to hold still for the ants crawling toward her, which finds some effective darkness, his gentle “You’re still gonna be yourself—but a better part of yourself” coming as he impassively clamps a hand over her mouth while she tries to scream.
  • All the ant-headed people have an obsession with The Cars’ “You Might Think.” The fact that Winstead keeps hearing the song throughout the episode is supposed to be comically eerie. I’m not quite there yet.
  • “I looked up that yodeling documentary you did. What’s that called?” “Yodeling.”
  • The title credit comes in at the 18-minute mark.
  • As even-handed as the show intends its condemnation of the Presidential candidates’ rhetoric to be, simply by playing them side-by-side inevitably makes Trump sound like the crazy one. (Listen for his “I could stand right in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody” sound bite in the opening montage.)
  • Welcome to The A.V. Club’s weekly coverage of BrainDead. I’m Dennis, and I’ll be your reviewer of this intriguing new series. Please contact TV Editor Joshua Alston, however, if my reviews start to simply repeat, “It was much better than Cats. I’m going to see it again and again.” He’ll know what to do.

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