In a very unexpected turn of events, the weirdest and perhaps most interesting new TV series of the summer is on CBS. While I’m not sure that ‘BrainDead’ is a new television classic yet, it’s a hell of a lot more fun than ‘Under the Dome’, ‘Zoo’ or other similarly stupid garbage the network usually airs this time of year.
To a certain extent, how the show wound up on CBS is easy enough to figure out. As ‘The Good Wife’ ended its seven-season run, creators Robert and Michelle King pitched the network on the idea of making a political satire next. This seems like a natural enough transition. ‘Good Wife’ fans might imagine the writers doing something along the lines of HBO’s ‘Veep’, but with more of a dramatic bent and less profanity. However, where the show actually goes is… well, certainly not that.
The setting is the present day, right in the middle of the heated Clinton/Trump Presidential race. (Generic soundbytes from both candidates spill out of TV screens throughout the episode.) Mary Elizabeth Winstead stars as Laurel Healy, an aspiring documentary filmmaker whose career is going nowhere fast. At the urging (and bribery) of her father, she returns home to Washington, D.C. and takes what is intended to be a six-month position as a junior staffer for her brother Luke (Danny Pino), a handsome and smooth-talking Democratic Senator. He assigns her the thankless task of “Constituent Casework” – i.e. listening to the crazy complaints of crackpots from the unwashed public and trying to resolve their issues, at least enough so that they’ll vote for Luke again in the next election. Laurel’s biggest problem is that she makes the mistake of actually giving a damn about helping people. That sort of attitude won’t get her very far in D.C.
Unfortunately, Laurel’s new job coincides with an imminent government shutdown resulting from petty squabbling between the two major political parties. It also coincides with a meteor crashing in Russia and being transported to the Smithsonian Institute, where it’s left unattended in a storage warehouse when the scientists studying it are all sent home on unpaid leave. Unbeknownst to anyone, the meteor is filled with brain-eating insects from outer space!
One of Laurel’s constituent cases sends her out to look into the matter of an engineer from a cargo ship. The man’s wife complains that he came back from his latest sea voyage very changed and acting totally unlike himself. She shows Laurel video her husband shot which implies that he was attacked by something from inside a cargo crate – the very crate transporting the meteor from Russia. When Laurel asks the woman why she’d bring this to the Senator, she learns that the meteor was shipped under direction from her brother’s office. When she goes to question the ship’s captain, Laurel finds the man – and all the other crew from the ship – acting very peculiarly and reciting an obviously rehearsed story.
Seemingly unrelated to this, Laurel also crosses paths with Gareth Ritter (Aaron Tveit from ‘Graceland’ and ‘Grease Live!’), the chief of staff for Republican Sen. Red Wheatus (Tony Shalhoub). Gareth says that Wheatus is willing to cross the aisle and make a deal with Luke to get the government working again. It turns out that Wheatus is actually a drunken souse who can barely tell which way is up most of the time, and that Gareth is pulling his strings for personal reasons. Laurel and Gareth have an instant animosity that will no doubt eventually morph into a romantic entanglement. (They’re both too pretty for that not to happen.)
Before that deal can get locked down, Wheatus passes out drunk on his bed, whereupon a single-file line of the ant-like aliens march into his room and crawl directly into his ear. The Senator wakes up feeling groggy, shakes his head a bit, and watches a big chunk of his brain slide out the other ear onto the bed and then explode. He isn’t much bothered by this. In fact, he feels great. With a reinvigorated sense of purpose, he goes to work early (which he has never done before) and announces to Gareth that the deal is off. Instead, he hatches a plan to woo a Democrat to switch parties.
Over the course of the episode, Laurel notices more and more people in town behaving oddly and staring at her and Luke. The engineer’s wife from earlier returns to the office fully converted to a Pod Person. She thanks the Senator for all his help and tells Laurel that everything is peachy keen fine now. Laurel thinks she’s being abused, but the woman insists that she much happier than she’s ever been.
Unwilling to give up the matter just yet, Laurel follows a lead to the Smithsonian, where she finds the chief scientist screaming in pain and freaking out, yelling about something inside his head. She calls 911 and rides in the ambulance with him, only to witness his head explode in a spray of blood all over her!
After showering and cleaning herself up, Laurel returns to the office in shock and learns that Wheatus’ backdoor dealings have shifted the balance of power in the Senate over to a Republican majority. As such, her brother (who was the Majority Whip) has to move his offices to decidedly less luxurious accommodations. He isn’t upset by this. It’s politics, and he’s ready to fight to get back on top. Just as he gets Laurel on board to help him, she notices Luke’s chief of staff (who’s also his mistress) staring at her like another Pod Person. That’s not good…
Episode Verdict / Grade: B+
This is a really odd show to air on CBS. It’s a pretty odd show in general. As a weird mash-up of ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’, ‘They Live’ and ‘The West Wing’, the obvious metaphor here is that politicians are already brainless puppets. If they were to suddenly be taken over by aliens, would that really be much worse or even different than the way things currently are? It might actually explain a lot.
The aliens’ purpose in taking over politicians isn’t clear yet, but given that they’re going after both political parties, they appear to want to create political discord and grind the wheels of human leadership to a halt, presumably to prep us for invasion.
The episode is filled with very funny satire about political cynicism and Washington back-stabbing, topped with the surreal goofiness of aliens and exploding heads. In one particularly amusing running gag, all of the Pod People enjoy listening to “You Might Think” by The Cars over and over again, and Laurel seems to hear that song everywhere she goes.
At the same time, the influence from ‘The Good Wife’ is also pretty clear. While more overtly a comedy, some of the tone carries over, along with a few cast members.
I don’t think the pilot episode ever goes for broke and lets loose the sort of gonzo craziness I expected, but perhaps it’s just building up to that? Regardless, I enjoyed it enough to tune in again.