On BrainDead, the Wild CBS Summer Political Satire
Six months ago, if you told me there was a show on television that, in the eleventh episode of its first season, featured a musical ‘Previously On’ recap by Jonathan Coulton that decided recapping the show was too stressful and sung about an episode of Gunsmoke instead, I would probably be, let’s say, nonplussed.
If you then told me that show was airing on CBS, I would probably laugh in your face and call you all manner of nasty things.
And yet here we are. It’s BrainDead’s world and we (well, a begrudgingly small subset of the ‘we’ of television watchers) are just living in it.
The thirteen episode summer series from The Good Wife creators Robert and Michelle King is reaching its end (the final two episodes will air this coming Sunday in order to clear the schedule before the NFL wreaks havoc on it, a fate all too familiar for both the Kings and The Good Wife fans all over), and despite its wild recaps and buzzworthy premise, it hasn’t exactly stoked the fires of the television-going public too busy gorging themselves on The Night Of (which, to be fair to everyone who gorged themselves on The Night Of, is a pretty darned good little series). A biting political satire, BrainDead takes place in a world very much in parallel to our own, one where Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders give policy speeches on televisions in the background and Washington DC is embroiled in the same sort of hyperpartisanship that has gripped our nation since Bill Clinton took office in the 90’s.
What we don’t know, and what the denizens of BrainDead slowly discover, is that this fractious climate of unrest is the result of parasitic ant-like bugs who crawl into the ears of our political leaders and take control of their brains.
But they aren’t just any bugs. They’re space bugs.
Our window into this zany world of mind-controlling space bugs is Laurel Healy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, as captivating as ever), a struggling documentarian who moves back home at the behest of her father Dean (The Good Wife veteran Zach Grenier). Needing to make ends meet between fundraising for her films, she takes a job with her brother, US Senator Luke Healy (Danny Pino, a long time veteran of CBS procedurals like Cold Case and Law and Order: Special Victims Unit) just as Red Wheatus (Tony Shalhoub, chewing scenery with the zeal of a protester who just ended a hunger strike), a Republican Senator, strikes a deal with Luke to avoid a government shutdown. Amidst the political hand waving, a meteor carrying the previously noted space bugs touches down in Russia, and is brought to DC for study whereupon the space bugs free themselves and take over Red’s brain, causing him to reneg on the deal and convince a Democrat to switch parties, taking away the Democrat’s flimsy majority in Congress.
Oh, and by the way, sometimes the act of infecting a host doesn’t take, in which case the person’s head explodes.
It’s The West Wing meets V by way of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
I’d like to remind you at this point that this show airs on CBS, the network defined by repetitive crime procedurals and toothless comedies like Two Broke Girls and The Big Bang Theory.
CBS. Is airing this show. In prime time. On Sunday.
It’s notable, then, that after all the craziness of the first episode (which, to be fair, does struggle a bit with finding its tonal home, perhaps playing a bit too far out on the horror side of the scale), the show manages to pull the rug out from under its audience again in the second episode by leading off with a musical Previously On recap sung by internet nerd folk song stylist Jonathan Coulton. He sings a recap at the top of every episode, and just finding out how he goes about it is a joy (it doesn’t take long for the recaps to develop a meta story of their own). Coulton, in his own way, is another link to The Kings’ The Good Wife days; one of their ripped from the headlines episodes was a take on his infamous public spat with Glee over their shameless heist of his arrangement of a “Baby Got Back” cover (with the Coulton analogue played by Matthew Lillard), and later appearing on the show himself in a cameo role.
His whimsical songs that kick off every episode of the show are by far the highlight of each week (and are as infectious as a space bug chowing down on some political brain matter), but that in no way diminishes the 43 or so minutes that follow it. The Kings dealt themselves a particularly difficult hand, mixing heavy political satire with out-of-this-world (literally) science fiction mixed with a dollop of Cronenbergian body horror. It’s a lot to juggle in 43 minute increments, with some episodes focusing full force on the politics while others place the space bugs front and center. It can feel like a wildly different show from week to week, though the overall sense of madcap flights of fancy remains consistent no matter which part of the story takes the lead. Taking everything into consideration, The King’s are certainly more interested in the political theater aspects of the satire than telling a cracking alien invasion story, so those who might be more invested in Laurel’s space bug squashing team (Nikki M. James, also a The Good Wife vet, and Johnny Ray Gill) could find themselves occasionally flustered when BrainDead focuses in on government shutdowns or hidden budget subsidies with nefarious implications. It’s all tied into the bugs, of course, whose plans for global domination have slowly evolved over the eleven episodes, but the implications are clear: the only way people could act as crazy as politicians in DC do on a regular basis is if 40% of their brains have been eaten by carnivorous space bugs.
Someone has to fight against the tide, and while Mary Elizabeth Winstead might not be the first name that comes to mind when looking for a leader to repel an alien threat, this is not her first tussle with extra terrestrials. From 2011’s ill fated prequel The Thing to this year’s 10 Cloverfield Lane, Winstead has stared down her share of aliens, though she is by no means a Ripley-like action heroine in BrainDead. It’s not a flashy role, but it’s one she plays with poise, and her budding romance with Red’s conflicted chief of staff Gareth (Aaron Tveit) makes for a nice change of pace in the face of all the wackiness. The real highlight is Shalhoub, relishing his role as Maryland Senator turned space bug mastermind, a queen residing in his cranium. It’s one of those wonderfully juicy parts, playing a character who is playing a character playing a character, his mannerisms changing depending on who is in the room and who might be watching, that hilariously over the top accent its own red flag (snicker) for anyone paying close enough attention.
Despite the buckets of humor Shalhoub brings to the table as Senator Wheatus, he retains an undercurrent of menace, a characteristic that helps the show’s staying power immensely. For all of the silliness and the satire and the songs, BrainDead is still a television program with stakes, and it manages to generate a boatload of tension from the inexorable conquest of the space bugs. Their soundless march from an unassuming bunch of cherry blossoms to their next victim is chilling for how understated it is played. They are winning this war before most of the world even knows there is one. Jonathan Coulton’s decision to take a break from the show because it’s too stressful and watch some Gunsmoke may be a gag, but it does point to the effectiveness of BrainDead’s ability to establish tension. The silliness and the political satire on its own would not be enough to give the show its staying power. Its pulpy science fiction edge is the perfect complement.
It remains to be seen whether BrainDead will be sustainable over a long term, or even whether it will be given a chance. The Good Wife never lit up the ratings charts, and CBS let it run its course for seven seasons, so while BrainDead’s ratings are far lower than The Good Wife at its worst, that doesn’t automatically mean the Kings’ new show is absolutely on the chopping block. What likely makes it vulnerable, though, is how far afield it is in tone from the rest of CBS’ lineup. The Good Wife was a critical darling, which certainly kept it afloat even as its ratings sagged behind other CBS shows, but it also felt like a CBS show in a way BrainDead never has. That’s not a complete barrier to the world of renewal; ABC gave Twin Peaks two seasons back in the day, and NBC somehow aired Hannibal (quite possibly the most violent and depraved show I’ve ever seen, network or otherwise) for three.
We’ll see soon enough whether BrainDead is a one season wonder or if the space bugs will be coming back for more (one of the interesting aspects of the finale this weekend is how the show will be able to continue after the storyline wraps up, or if it decides to head in more of an American Horror Story style anthology series). It’s possible it will live on as an anomaly, a flash in the pan that sought in some way to process the uniquely deranged American political climate in 2016. We’re pretty far gone if the best way to describe what’s gone wrong with Washington involves brain eating space bugs, but at least we got a thoroughly entertaining television show out of it.
And that’s what really matters in the end, right?
(No. No it isn’t. But you get the point.)