If I ever let myself fall asleep to cable news, I suspect the ensuing nightmares would look a whole lot like BrainDead.
From The Good Wife creators Michelle and Robert King, the new "political thriller" follows Laurel (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a disillusioned Washington, DC, native who tried to build a career out of making searing documentaries until her scheming father and senator brother drew her into the fraught world of polarized politics, with the promise of paying off her student loans if she helps out her brother during a government shutdown.
So far, so typical, right? "But wait! There’s more!" says BrainDead, gleefully throwing a startling twist into the partisan fray. Laurel has joined the roiling eddy of Washington politics right at the moment when mysterious alien ants have started stealthily attacking people's brains for … some nefarious reason. (More on what that reason might be later.)
As presented by BrainDead — which tries to skew more comedic than dramatic — these brain-eating bugs are either the worst thing to ever befall the world, or the most hilarious. (The fact that I can’t tell after watching two full episodes should give you an idea of just how confused BrainDead is.)
As Laurel tries to dig into the mystery of what’s going on while struggling with her new job as a constituent case worker, she winds up caught between her Democrat family and Gareth (Aaron Tveit), a charming Republican aide whose infamously stubborn boss (Tony Shalhoub) keeps getting in her brother’s way.
So there’s a whole lot of backroom dealing and congressional intrigue happening in addition to the threat of having bugs make a buffet of your brain; it’s a lot for anyone to handle, let alone a half-drawn character whose defining characteristic is that she made a documentary once.
To its credit, BrainDead’s supernatural-tinged premise is at least somewhat interesting, thanks to its determination to make the endless back and forth of partisan politics both prescient and funny. Throw in the aforementioned brain-ravaging insects, and the show could be incredibly entertaining — if only BrainDead had any idea of what it wanted to achieve.
BrainDead takes on politics with the confused enthusiasm of a Facebook rant
Every time I got confused while watching BrainDead’s first two episodes — a common occurrence — I reminded myself of the very first scene of the pilot: a split-screen barrage of footage in which Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, and an unhappy Russian man are all talking at once. "In the year 2016," a caption says in declarative white letters, "there was a growing sense that people were losing their minds…"
Enter BrainDead, I guess?
Incorporating reality into a scripted television show is always tricky, especially when said reality includes politics. BrainDead dives right in, making it clear that, yes, the series is supposed to take place in the 2016 we know, and, yes, things are pretty messed up.
And while today’s political climate certainly provides plenty of material to mine, the problem with BrainDead’s approach is that not a single aspect of it contains any subtlety. The show fails to demonstrate an understanding beyond, "Republicans and Democrats don’t like each other, kind of a lot, and doesn’t that seem like a bad thing?"
When Laurel isn't nobly trying to convince her brother (Danny Pino) to act like a human being while pursuing his political agenda, she and Gareth are throwing scraps of Twitter arguments at each other in the name of reaching across the metaphorical aisle. The result is that Laurel mostly bumbles her way around Washington, occasionally showing some moxie but really just absorbing the weirdness around her.
Winstead does what she can, but she really does deserve better than this one-dimensional role. And Shalhoub, for his part, is miscast in the role of Southern Republican "Red Wheatus" — even if he’s game to luxuriate in his character’s smugness.
All the while, television coverage plays on a loop in the background, with pertinent, Fox News–style sound bites delivered by a conservative blond reporter (Megan Hilty); her statements are then countered by a fed-up take on Rachel Maddow (Beth Malone). Both remind us constantly that at the end of the day, everyone both inside Washington and outside of it pretty much knows politics is a game of chicken.
BrainDead just tries to do too many things at once — including attempting to comment on the State of Politics Today — and the result is more convoluted than revelatory. Just take a look at the title of the pilot episode, which I promise is real: "The Insanity Principle: How Extremism in Politics Is Threatening Democracy in the 21st Century."
Sure, BrainDead! Why not.
At the very least, you can play a fun drinking game with BrainDead, one where you take a sip every time someone scoffs, "the Democrats" or "the Republicans" with a frustrated, eye-rolling sneer. The series knows politics is more contentious than ever, but that’s about all it seems to know. So more often than not, it devolves into the most basic of talking points — the exact thing it’s trying to skewer in the first place.
Okay, but what was that about brain-eating ants? Is this a comedy or a drama? What is BrainDead?!
These are fair questions. Unfortunately, I don’t think I — or anyone involved with the series, for that matter — have a good grasp of the answers.
The tone of BrainDead is immediately bizarre. It’s going for something much lighter than what The Good Wife generally traded in, but laces almost every scene with self-consciously significant moments that badly want to convey gravitas. Remember how The Good Wife frequently fell flat when it produced topical episodes based on "ripped from the headlines" events? BrainDead is like that, but with more cortex-chomping parasites.
In the second episode, for example, Shalhoub’s Republican senator tries to convince someone to switch political parties, arguing with a smirk that party lines are just "brands," like Cheerios versus Chex. The only thing more inane than the senator's argument is the fact that it works.
So instead of achieving whatever commentary on politics and life BrainDead is striving for, it ends up settling for surface-level scenes whose messages boil down to something more like, "Ugh, politics, amirite?"
As for the ants … well, turning Washington into a horde of mindless zombies à la Invasion of the Body Snatchers is a pretty good hook, isn’t it?
Beyond that, the purpose of the creatures remains unclear, despite BrainDead showing us the aftermath of several people’s infections. Some victims are simply rendered mindlessly happy. Others — namely the politicians — are affected in a way that strengthens their most extreme views, making them efficient, focused machines whose only purpose is to further their party’s platform. Still others just kind of sit around, oozing brain matter. Super chill.
The exact objective of the bugs will no doubt be revealed in time, but while we wait for that moment, we can all agree that the side effect of having one’s brain rewired — at least as BrainDead presents it — is currently pretty stupid.
It would be one thing if BrainDead used this supernatural twist to energize otherwise typical political plots, but in eagerly attempting to make some larger argument about simmering anger and partisanship — which I think is what the show aiming for — it just trips all over itself. BrainDead has no idea what it’s trying to say, but as the chirpy music insists in every other scene, at least it’s having fun.
BrainDead airs Mondays at 10 pm Eastern on CBS.