We gave it a B
Before we talk about BrainDead, let’s talk about Lost, because why not. Back in the day, when the writers were creatively stymied – temporarily brain-dead, you might say – they would recharge by taking their minds off the work at hand and dream up ideas for wild and crazy new shows. One of them was an action/adventure/mystery procedural about a crime-fighting stripper (catchphrase: “Razzle dazzle!”) called Exposé. This larky concept tickled them so much it became something of obsession. Ultimately, Exposé found its way into Lost itself, resulting in a cheeky change-of-pace episode in season 3 that was loved by some and hated by others, becoming a touchstone for a polarizing season.
I tell you about Exposé at the risk of triggering your Lost PTSD for two reasons: 1) CBS only provided the pilot episode of BrainDead for review, and since I don’t have a lot to say about it: vamping; and 2) BrainDead strikes me as the kind of lunatic idea a pair of TV writers would come up with while trying to re-animate their tired imaginations, then fall in love with it so much that they just have to pursue it. In this case, said writers would be Robert and Michelle King, the creators and wire-to-wire showrunners of The Good Wife, which concluded its seven-year run last month. BrainDead is definitely a change of pace: it’s about an insidious takeover of the nation’s government by an alien intelligence via an army of extraterrestrial ants. It’s a blend of political satire and semi-campy horror – a darkly comic zombie yarn, a cheeky Invasion of the Body Snatchers. And if the whole season is like the pilot, it might actually be fun.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead – marvelous earliest this year in 10 Cloverfield Lane – is very good here as Laurel Healy, an earnest, well-meaning, slightly pretentious documentary filmmaker and the sister of a hunky, hotshot, definitely douchey but not unlikeable senator (Danny Pino of Cold Case and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit). Prodded by her powerful father (Zach Grenier, slightly less of a big meanie here than he was on The Good Wife), Laurel takes what’s supposed to be a short-term gig working for her brother as his voter outreach rep. Technically, her job is to solve the problems of Sen. Healy’s constituents. You know, the way government is supposed to work. Really, though, her function is make sure those constituents keep voting for Sen. Healy, whether she solves their problems or not. You know, the way government actually works. She’s the change we desperately need and she will save us all… from insect invasion!
It’s in the course of executing this difficult and thankless work that Laurel begins investigating the peculiar matter of a strange meteorite newly arrived in Washington DC from Russia for scientific study. What we know – what she’s going to figure out – is that this rocky horror flying ant circus, a Trojan Horse hiding, like, a bajillion beady little bugs capable of turning human beings into hive mind-heeding drones. We see how this works in one spectacularly disgusting scene in which a column of subversives crawl into the ear of a lazy, alcoholic Republican senator sleeping off a bender. (Is there any other kind?) (Kidding! Jokes!) When he wakes, he pushes his brain out his ear like a constipated man squeezing out a difficult turd. I s—t you not, it looks like he’s s—ting out his brain. It’s a delightfully demented sight gag, because Senator Red Wheatus is played by Monk’s Tony Shalhoub, and he can make anything funny. Even Monk.
Sen. Wheatus becomes clean and sober as a result of his otherworldly enlightenment and/or dimming. But is his mental adjustment a good thing? It’s certainly a metaphor. As the ants go marching into his ear, we hear blah blah blah political rabble on TV. The whole episode, in fact, is set against the backdrop of a government shutdown, the result of more death-match warfare between Democrats and Republicans. The title of the episode spells out some more of the Kings’ thinking as well as their own concerns: “The Insanity Principal: How Extremism in Politics is Threatening Democracy in the 21st Century.” (Seriously.) Has bad, brainless government made us vulnerable to a bizarre authoritarian takeover? Sounds like a certain presidential campaign I know…
The satire is as thin as Donald Trump’s skin. And the pilot commits the sin of a wimpy climax. It ends on a major reversal of fortune and an ominous development, but neither land with much force. I wasn’t left super-confident that the Kings have enough imagination to sustain this enterprise. But I liked it enough to find out. The cast is spunky and appealing, the writing is witty, the tone is light, the brain poop thing made me laugh. I also liked the shot of the tiny ant on the little leaf surveying Washington DC as a land to be conquered. The episode moves with the same lively pace – and a similar jaunty score – as The Good Wife. I love the idea of the Kings stretching themselves – or just spelling themselves – with an experiment in a different genre. Even if it’s a bust, it’s good for them. And if it’s not a bust, it’s really good for genre TV, which could always use a blast of inspired creativity. BrainDead, you have my head and my vote. Now keep earning it. Razzle dazzle! B