When people think “from the creators of The Good Wife,” or just CBS programming for that matter, one doesn’t tend to conjure thoughts of a political satire where space ants oust people’s brains, or make their heads explode. But that is precisely what Robert and Michelle King’s creation BrainDead brings to the table, as a kind of mashup between an earnest pod people thriller and a scathing Washington commentary.
BrainDead stars national treasure Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Laurel Healy, an unsuccessful documentary filmmaker (she has great ideas, but lacks funding) from L.A. Laurel ends up accepting her father’s pleas to come home to D.C. and be the eyes and ears in her Senator brother’s office — but only because he agrees to fund her next project. That brother, Luke (Danny Pino), then sets her up as his constituent liaison, where she discovers not only her natural aptitude for politics, but the hints of a conspiracy involving ant-like creatures that hitched a ride here on a meteor, and change people’s personalities to make them politically rabid.
Fans of The Good Wife will find a lot of familiar aspects (and cast members) in BrainDead, which essentially is built on that former show’s subplots and quirkier aspects. For those who didn’t watch The Good Wife, the show did politics exceptionally well, showing particular savvy regarding technology, and the way we use the internet and our gadgets — especially when it comes to political games. The same carries over to BrainDead, where characters are constantly on their phones or computers in way that feels natural and timely.
Laurel’s brother is a Democrat, but she almost immediately gets entangled with the machinations (and possible affections) of an ambitious Republican staffer, Gareth (Aaron Tveit), whose boss is fantastically played by Tony Shalhoub. The two scheme and spar, and reflect the larger-scale politicking at work between the two parties. The series doesn’t appear to be interested in portraying higher level operations or more macro considerations, but instead focuses on the smaller issues driven by these largely self-interested decisions. The show also smartly uses a government shutdown to not only shape its main political discord, but to keep its cast of characters light; with most of DC furloughed, only “essential staff” remain.
BrainDead moves along at a plucky pace, with the always charming Winstead as an affable and compelling lead, especially as she starts to unravel more about the space bug conspiracy. People can’t ignore exploding heads forever, no matter how much the government seeks to cover it up (cynicism and suspicion of government institutions is another hallmark of the Kings’ work).
While those aspects work — though they are occasionally too on-the-nose (early episodes were re-tooled to include timely references about Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton) — the series’ tone may be divisive. It’s mostly a drama, but it’s also deeply satirical and occasionally whimsical. Each episode’s “previously on” also takes the form of a song, which is a weird but fun way to retrace the major events of the last few episodes. Does it work? It might. (And the obsession with low-angle shots? Jury’s out). But this hodgepodge of approaches may ultimately leave the series as too quirky for its own network good.
Laurel eventually finds an ally in oddball Gustav Triplett (Johnny Ray Gill), whose research and unorthodox methods of contending with the bugs soon appears to be her only hope of helping stop them. But given how quickly the bugs seem to be spreading, the longevity of the idea behind (or beyond) this 13-episode first season seems to be in serious question. And while it has a great cast and provides a new, bizarre twist on an old pod-people tale, its appeal may remain fairly niche, especially for CBS viewers. Billed as a “comic thriller,” it could also be called political science fiction, or even an absurdist drama. But not horror. The true horror would be the confirmation that our current political leaders aren’t under the control of space bugs at all. The comfort would be knowing they were.
Rating: ★★★ Good — Proceed with cautious optimism
BrainDead premieres Monday, June 13th on CBS.