It's the invasion of the brain-eating space bugs

By Devan Coggan
June 14, 2016 at 01:41 PM EDT
Credit: Michael Parmelee/CBS
S1 E1
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The pilot of BrainDead opens with a statement: “In the year 2016, there was a growing sense that people were losing their minds.” This is a fairly true fact, especially when placed over clips of Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, Bernie Sanders, and various cable-news talking heads, all yelling incoherently at one another. What’s less true — at least I hope — is the rest of the pilot episode, which posits that the reason everyone in Washington, D.C. is so crazy is because they’ve all had their brains eaten by space bugs.

Yes, that’s brain-eating space bugs. You read that correctly.

Welcome, ladies and gentleman, to BrainDead, our leading contender for the strangest, most delightful new show on television this summer. Our heroine is Laurel Healy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, of 10 Cloverfield Lane and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World). Born and raised in a family that lives and breathes D.C. politics, Laurel rebels by heading to L.A. and becoming a documentary filmmaker, specializing in subjects like religious music in the Solomon Islands. It isn’t until she starts running out of money (and her powerful father pressures her into returning to D.C.) that she decides to sell out and work as a staffer for her brother, charming Maryland senator and Democratic whip Luke Healy (Danny Pino). It’s supposed to be a short-term gig, six months at the most, but, of course, strange things start happening pretty quickly. Extraterrestrial things, to be exact.

Laurel’s first day starts innocently enough. The gridlocked Congress is on the verge of a massive government shutdown, which means she’s stuck handling constituent casework, a.k.a. trying to appease the random voters who wander into Sen. Healy’s office. It’s less about solving their problems and more about making sure they vote for Luke in the next election cycle. Most of it’s juggling Social Security issues and handling the occasional crazy constituent intent on giving the senator a dog made out of chocolate. That is until she meets a woman who’s concerned that her husband is…different. Randall Burke went from being a hard-drinking loudmouth to a quiet teetotaler, seemingly overnight after coming into contact with a meteor. Even more mysteriously, Sen. Healy’s office was responsible for shipping the meteor from Russia to D.C.

But Laurel doesn’t have time to worry about this seemingly trivial problem, because she’s soon accosted by the handsome and slightly smarmy Gareth Ritter (Broadway star and Grease Live! alum Aaron Tveit), who works for Maryland Republican Sen. Red Wheatus (Tony Shalhoub). Gareth, as he tells Laurel, wants to stop the impending government shutdown and help the Republicans and Democrats come to an agreement, in exchange for a few million dollars’ worth of earmarks for autism research. (Side note: If Tveit doesn’t sing at some point on BrainDead, there will be rioting and many upset Broadway fans. Including me.)

Excitedly, Laurel brings this to her brother, only to learn that a) he’s sleeping with his chief of staff, Scarlett, despite having a wife who is eight months pregnant; and b) he and the Democrats are going to pass on Gareth’s deal and let the government shut down, all in the hopes of blaming the whole mess on the Republicans. So in case you haven’t noticed yet, BrainDead is pretty pessimistic about the state of Washington.

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The shutdown happens, lots of people are out of work, and as a result, things start to get sloppy in D.C. Specifically, the Smithsonian is closed, which means no one is monitoring the aforementioned meteor. And as it turns out, that meteor is filled with the aforementioned brain-eating space bugs, which are now on the loose and chowing down on delicious gray matter. Pretty soon, it’s clear that those infected turn into extremely partisan zombies who avoid alcohol and love “You Might Think” by The Cars.

Which totally sucks, because I really like that song and now I’m forever going to associate it with space bugs. Although to be fair, it’s a great choice: The trippy music video does, after all, feature Ric Ocasek turning into a bug and stalking a woman. Fitting.

RELATED: The Good Wife showrunners preview new series BrainDead: ‘It’s fun to go wilder’

NEXT: Brain drain

As Laurel, Luke, and Gareth are trying to find a way to end the shutdown, it’s basically invasion of the space bugs everywhere else. Luke and Wheatus even come close to striking a deal between the Democrats and the Republicans, but Red is an early victim of the bugs. In what might be the most comedically horrifying thing to air on network television in recent memory, we watch as the bugs slowly crawl inside Red’s right ear and he soon squeezes his own brain out of his left. To reiterate, he basically poops his brain out of his ear. It’s creepy, disgusting, and ultimately hilarious as Red absentmindedly pokes at his brain matter, watching as it disintegrates.

The change in Red is immediate. He goes from being an alcoholic sad sack to a radically conservative, green-juice-drinking bulldog, who goes back on his deal with Luke and convinces a moderate Democratic senator to switch sides. Not only is the shutdown still on, but the Republicans now have a majority in the senate.

Laurel soon encounters another victim, Smithsonian scientist Dr. Daudier, who was in charge of supervising the meteor. But instead of harmlessly squeezing out his brain, the bugs cause Dr. Daudier to have a bad reaction. As an ambulance races him to the hospital, Laurel and some very confused paramedics watch helplessly as his head SPONTANEOUSLY COMBUSTS. That’s right, the bugs don’t just eat your brain. Sometimes they make your HEAD EXPLODE. We may not know exactly how these bugs work just yet, but we do know they’re very, very gross.

Oh, and in case the major political shakeup and the EXPLODING HEADS weren’t enough for Laurel to deal with, it turns out that Scarlett, Luke’s chief of staff, is now a big fan of The Cars. One more bug-infested zombie person to deal with!

So that’s the pilot episode of BrainDead. In some ways, it feels like an odd fit for CBS, which has built its empire on various NCISes and sitcoms like The Big Bang Theory. (A few weeks ago, the network unceremoniously dumped Limitless, last year’s quirky program.) BrainDead is an oddball little show with a lot of potential, though the political satire leaves a lot to be desired — it feels a little like Veep light, without the profanity or biting sarcasm — and the horror elements aren’t quite as horrifying as they could be. But the show also has a lot going for it, including a charming cast, an offbeat premise, and talented showrunners: Robert and Michelle King, the creators of The Good Wife.

It remains to be seen how well the crazy concept can hold up over an entire series, and we have no idea where things will go from here, but if the rest of the show is as much fun as the pilot episode, count us in.

Odds and ends

Number of times we hear “You Might Think”: 4

Grossest moment: Watching Wheatus dislodge his own brain from his head is pretty traumatizing, but the winner is Dr. Daudier’s exploding head, which splatters Laurel in blood. A lot of blood.

Best lines:

  • “Where were you?” “Watching a man’s head explode.”
  • “Oh Gareth, about that pro-choice rally. What are you wearing?”
  • “What did Dad do to my room? It looks like a Bond villain lives there now.”

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