Johnny Ray Gill (CBS)
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So just what do these space-bugs want, anyway?

Having taken over Red Wheatus in the pilot, they’ve transformed Tony Shalhoub’s drunken burnout of a Republican senator into a cynically manipulative, teetotaling power player, whose glee in crushing the dreams of a little girl with cancer sees him crowing to aide Gareth, “You gave me the knife, buddy, and I gutted them!” Except that Wheatus is merely countering Democratic Senator Luke Healy’s equally cynical use of the girl’s desire to complete her bucket list visit to the shutdown-shuttered Lincoln Memorial. After sister Laurel appeals to his better nature to grant the dying girl’s request, Luke first advises her, “You’ll be hearing a million stories of heartbreak every day,” before relenting—only so he can parade the girl in front of hungry news cameras as an example of how the Republicans are hurting adorable, cancer-stricken children. Wheatus spearheads a campaign to discredit the girl as “Shutdown Annie” and “Atheist Annie” (thanks to her teacher father’s political views), while Luke, justifying himself to his sister, forgets the girl’s name, brushing it off by explaining, “I lost my cadence there.”

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BrainDead sets itself an ambitious task in combining sci-fi paranoia thriller, dark comedy, and political satire. (Toss in some gross-out body horror and a little romance while you’re at it.) Setting the show in the present day, amidst the named names of the actual 2016 political scene, is a stick that swirls all those elements together in a way that’s proving problematic as far as presenting a coherent satirical point-of-view. So far, the most high-profile victim of the takeover is Wheatus, and all the bugs have done is make him is very good at manipulating the existing political process. Sure, there are hints of a wider agenda in his beaming, pooh-poohed pitch to Luke and fellow Democratic Senator Ella Pollack (Jan Maxwell) to entirely wipe out the departments of commerce, education, and energy because they “hamper the free market.” And all those wheat grass and beet smoothies he and his fellow bug-brains keep quaffing suggest a uniformity of culture that’s unnerving (and, you know, gross). But there’s too little difference thus far between the post-takeover Wheatus and what’s presented as the status quo for those politicians (both fictional and real-life) who have mucked up American politics.

Danny Pino (CBS)

Which isn’t to say that BrainDead creators Michelle and Robert King are interested in being completely even-handed. Apart from the new Wheatus’ sledgehammer approach and crass opportunism, the bugs’ influence provokes the sort of “make America great” sloganeering of a certain presidential candidate, as seen when Laurel and fellow liberal college friend Stacie (Nikiya Mathis) discover that their other pal, Abby (Brooke Bloom) has ditched her Genius Grant and novel-writing in order to throw in with the suspiciously-named “Help America Rise Again” movement. There’s a question of just how much of the actual Abby is left in there when she lashes out at Laurel for being judgmental before breaking down and crying. But in the end, not only does she later lure Stacie to her bug-swarmed doom, the fact that Abby specifically name-drops Donald Trump as her new political exemplar marks out where BrainDead is going with a bluntness that trumps (pardon) the show’s other elements.

When the bugs take over a Democrat, like they have Luke’s aide/mistress Scarlett (Paige Patterson), the change wrought is to coarsen the political discourse. Accosting the bewildered FBI Agent Onofrio (Charlie Semine) who’s come to interview Laurel about Dr. Daudier’s messy death, Scarlett is a caricature of strident sloganeering, demanding whether his tiny American flag lapel pin means he’s judging her patriotism. (“Because you wear one and I don’t, am I some godless liberal?”) And while it’s true that both sides of the aisle are shown prone to that sort of shallow entrenchment, Scarlett’s later attempt to take over Luke by seducing him (foiled by her comical inability to mimic mating behavior of the hu-mans) shows that she’s just doing what she needs to to fit in while the crypto-crawly conservative brain-invasion gains a foothold.

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And, back to the bugs, BrainDead’s lurching attempts to ride herd over its many narrative ambitions is rendering the li’l space monsters strangely ineffective (and therefore a lot less scary). In that first scene, there’s a line of bugs marching right toward Laurel in her kitchen. Sure, they’re resistant to bug spray (although not a well-stomped shoe), but they’re not there when Laurel gets home later. Did they just give up? If, as we’ve seen with Wheatus, they can simply crawl into your ear when you’re not expecting it, well, Laurel has to sleep, doesn’t she? And was Laurel targeted for anything other than convenience in the first place? For a show ostensibly about brain-munching alien insects, the bugs are consistently BrainDead’s least effective element, mainly because of how perfunctory they are as plot device. Only in the few scenes where someone is shown rebelling against their possession does the actual human cost of what’s happening register, as in the introduction of BrainDead’s promising newest character tonight.

First seen cockily playing speed chess against multiple opponents in a D.C. park, Gustav (Underground’s Johnny Ray Gill) sees some blood trickling out of the ear of one, and, like Laurel, witnesses both the wrenching precursor to someone fighting for their very identity (“They’re inside my head!”), and the gory aftermath, as, like Daudier’s, the terrified man’s head explodes in a gory mess inside an MRI tube. Gill (see also: Rectify) is an immediately engaging presence, and Gustav, taking up his brain-spattered clothes, iPhone, and the internet, is, like Laurel, soon on the case with believable intrepidity. (He runs some manner of one-man conspiracy website that examines, among other topics, what that weird maple syrup smell in New Jersey was all about.) Gill, like Winstead’s Laurel, brings an outsider’s immediacy to his investigations, and the two of them make the episode’s pair of intense dramatic moments land. Gustav tries to talk his friend back to humanity by frantically taunting his chess moves, while Laurel speaks feelingly to Daudier’s E.R.-doctor daughter (Nikki M. James) about what really happened to her father in the back of that ambulance. As audience surrogates go, they’re great choices, grounding the show’s thriller and human elements better than the show itself has managed so far.

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Danny Pino, Mary Elizabeth Winstead (CBS)

As to what BrainDead presents as the ideal alternative to both the current, shrill political and media landscape and an America filled with grinning, half-brained bug slaves, the episode continues to set forth Laurel and Aaron Tveit’s Gareth as the exemplar of politics done right. She’s liberal, he’s conservative, but they’re both idealistic and willing to listen and actually argue the issues—especially when mooning at each other over cocktails at a lavish Washington “tax prom.” Winstead and Tveit continue to make a good couple, even if their task of exemplifying the show’s version of “sexy, sparring political opposites” sees them mouthing the expected debate shorthand. Railing against Abby’s conversion to fanatical Trump-ism, Laurel is countered by Gareth’s “And why do I think if she was raving about Hillary she wouldn’t be quite so fanatic?” Gareth accuses Democrats of being “tolerant of everyone but Republicans,” so Laurel snaps back, “That’s because a lot of Republicans are just intolerant.”

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“We don’t really talk, do we? We just contradict each other,” Lauren smiles at Gareth after another round (of sparring and drinks). But the show wants us to see, in their flirty exchanges, that they’re doing more than that—a position sold again more by the actors than the dialogue. Winstead and Tveit’s way of imbuing the characters with little touches of individuality goes a long way. (Laurel tipsily trips over her own talking point, while the two of them can’t refrain from ironically enjoying a dance—while clearly genuinely enjoying it.) That they both allow themselves to be used as pawns in Luke and Red’s power-struggle (Red wins, and Luke is stripped of his position as Democratic whip) is meant to show that these two idealistic lovebirds just aren’t made for the dirty political reality as it stands, bugs or no.

Stray observations

  • Tonight’s full episode title: “Playing Politics: Living Life in the Shadow of the Budget Showdown - A Critique.”
  • That’s comic troubadour Jonathan Coulton singing the opening “previously-on” recap song, something that’s apparently going to be a regular feature on BrainDead going forward. Coulton’s facility with achingly lovely, catchy tales of horror and weirdness is a brilliant choice for the show—even if his song here deftly juggles all those elements better than the episode that follows.
  • There’s not much even Winstead can do against Laurel’s on-the-nose visit to the Lincoln Memorial with the adorable little dying girl. Reading from the Gettysburg Address and Laurel asking, “What happened to everything? Why does nobody think that way any more?” is just too much earnestness for BrainDead to bear. It’s like when Judy Holliday’s Billie Dawn actually started reading those books in Born Yesterday—the fizz just goes out of things.
  • Other indications of BrainDead’s thoughts on the political process, from its characters: “It’s a game of musical chairs, Senator, and you just lost your chair,” “Gotta love this game!,” “They’re sharks. They’ll kill us if they can.”
  • Another hint as to where BrainDead’s coming from—the first scene opens on a sound bite of Donald Trump scolding women (and referring to himself repeatedly in the third person) over a shot of Laurel reaching for a can loudly labeled, “insect poison.”
  • Only one “You Might Think” tonight, as Abby uses it to drown out poor Stacie’s panicked screams as the space bugs swarm her behind the locked bathroom door in the final scene.
  • It’s a promising sign that the engaging Laurel and Gustav seem destined to team up. However, Laurel’s shock at the pictures on Gustav’s website and his call for others who’ve seen the bugs is less impactful dramatically, since, at this point, they just look like ants. We’ve all seen ants. They’re ants.
  • Also, having your investigators just Googling “exploding heads” isn’t the most sophisticated thriller storytelling I’ve ever seen.

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