Three episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
Multiple factors could impede your enjoyment of CBS’ new sci-fi/political drama BrainDead. While known to at least somewhat succeed at the latter genre, CBS has been lagging behind with the former. Because of this, to get the most out of BrainDead, you’ll have to be willing to welcome a network that doesn’t exactly have the best sci-fi track record. The show might be a D.C.-set poli-drama that makes ample use of all of the Trump v Clinton v Sanders soundbites that have dominated the media cycle of late, but it’s also got a weird streak and a demented sense of humor. Oh, and spontaneous combustion.
While trying to nail down the format for a few years, CBS has run into trouble gaining traction with fanbases that are amassing in droves to watch Preacher on AMC or even Bates Motel on A&E. Under the Dome worked, then it really, really didn’t; Zoo was intriguing, but lost that initial spark quickly; Supergirl has its fans, but they’ll have to visit Kara and company on The CW next season. BrainDead probably won’t do much in the way of NCIS numbers for the network (what does anymore?), but it excels in cleverness, so it’s subversively nifty that CBS took the creators of its successful legal/political drama series The Good Wife – Robert and Michelle King – to help craft a new genre series that feels far more fully formed and reliably propulsive than those other shows.
Things start off when Laurel Healy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, a blessing to TV screens across the world) shows up in Washington D.C. after her career as a niche documentary filmmaker – “Vanishing Voices: Songs of the Melanesian Choir” – out in Los Angeles mostly fails. Her brother Luke (Danny Pino) is the Democratic Whip and her dad Dean (Zach Grenier) works in the surveillance sector. To get the finances for her new documentary, Laurel agrees to stay in town for six months and hold a position in her brother’s office, as the world seemingly sits on the brink of disaster thanks to an incoming government shutdown caused by the ever-bickering Democratic and Republican parties.
This section of the show is where most of the drama takes place, and the Kings make some pretty overt maneuvers to include clips from the current Presidential campaign to solidify BrainDead as a slight, but winningly irreverent political satire. One of the best recurring gags centers on the diametrically opposed talking heads of a plainly Fox News correspondent (Megan Hilty in a random, welcome cameo) and another embracingly liberal network that takes someone’s belief in Abraham Lincoln’s homosexuality in stride.
There’s a David E. Kelley vibe to the whole thing, and Laurel’s exhausted, determined quest through her least favorite city on the planet gives it all a satisfying snark. Winstead is so good, so natural, so pleasant and endearing, she grounds BrainDead‘s more outlandish aspects with addictive tangibility. If that wasn’t enough already, she has giddy chemistry with legislative director Gareth (Aaron Tveit), both bounding over the hate-before-romance trope in about two adorable exchanges. Really, she’s reason enough to stick around and watch a show (and if things go to plan, there’s gonna be a lot of BrainDead, because the Kings have a four-year plan outlined); but, thankfully, she’s not BrainDead‘s only secret weapon.
The show, at its core, is about explaining why Washington, D.C. is the way it is in the kerfuffle of an on-going election, edging (as we are) closer and closer to November. Nothing natural can be behind such shenanigans, according to BrainDead. Only the extraordinary can explain away the vaudevillian pyrotechnics on display behind the campaign trails. Only a crashed meteorite with an army of ant-like bugs who have an affinity for burrowing into an ear and inflating a person’s political stances – yep, that has to be it.
The elevator pitch for BrainDead must have been as delightful as the end result, but it is admittedly one that sounds too cute for its own good on paper. In motion, BrainDead – ironically – has neurons firing out the wazoo, with only a few failing to spark. The Invasion of the Body Snatchers vibe to the bugs’ encroaching ascent through the political ladder generates some deeply unsettling moments centering around a hosted human introducing the creatures to that of a new specimen. In addition, the underlying mystery of what they are, where they came from, and their ultimate plan, fuel BrainDead with a fast pace that – hopefully – jets straight through season 1’s full 13 episode order.
There’s threat and danger lurking past the sidelines of Laurel and Luke’s political tango, and the two hemispheres of BrainDead‘s noggin fuse together terrifically. What sounds like two separate shows only support one another because of the way the satire of the bugs’ nature worms its way into the major oddities of Washington, D.C. They like “You Might Think” by The Cars, love a good fruit smoothie, hate alcohol, are disgusted by sex, and end up whipping the senate majority to the Republicans by the premiere’s end. The rest of their quirks – and what happens to those who aren’t welcome to their existence – are too good to spoil.
That’s not to say that BrainDead is subtle (Tony Shalhoub’s hardcore right wing Senator is seriously named “Red Wheatus”). The show is fast paced and nearly a non-stop barrage of weird, which can sometimes end in a trade-off of unwelcome stupidity. For example, Laurel’s a clever, quick-witted character, but she still leaves an army of encroaching bugs marching through her kitchen to rush out the door for work. Luke is likable in the face of a nonchalant affair with his assistant, but the fact that his wife is barely a character on the show makes it hard to invest in. Once the bugs are in full motion, Laurel meets Gustav (Johnny Ray Gill), but at the point of the third episode he’s largely indistinguishable from any other bookish conspiracy theorist with a Snowden obsession, who’s predictably afraid of NSA snoops, that you’ve seen in any other show or movie.
Although I’ll admit that BrainDead can place the occasional toe over the quirk line (I could take or leave the jingle recap segments that kick off each hour; doubly so the in-joke, long-form episode titles), but it nails its tone so solidly that it could easily pick up the mantle of last year’s summer genre slice, Wayward Pines. Like that show – which cribbed a little from Twin Peaks and Lost – BrainDead‘s execution isn’t novel, but its ideas are. In a way, it feels a bit like an episodic realization of what Edgar Wright does on the big screen: the characters burst with charm, the parody bits have a giddy bite, and unexpected turns morph the show into what is essentially a top-shelf version of everything it’s already been making fun of.
And yet it’s menacing. Make-you-second-guess-that-open-window menacing. The Kings figure out a way to make such a tricky, bonkers subject straight-up skin-crawling, and bounce back to ribbing dialogue in a flash (“About that pro-choice rally, what are you wearing again?” Laurel asks Republican Gareth as loudly as possible among his colleagues). It’s a lightning-strike rarity of a show – none of this should work, but it does. None of these characters should feel so well-rounded, but they are. Nothing so funny should manage to eke out so many indelibly creepy scenes. BrainDead is a whole lot of surprising, straight-up-entertaining things over the course of its opening hours but, this summer, it also feels like a no-brainer.
BrainDead might suffer from a lack of subtlety - then again, so does the election it's satirizing - but it's a freak-flag-flying type of show that only gets more WTF-entertaining the longer it goes on.