'BrainDead': TV Review
The 'Good Wife' creators' new CBS horror-comedy tries hard, but the laughs are rare.
Based on CBS' clunky marketing for BrainDead, a lot of generally well-informed people are perplexed by what the show is and even more perplexed as to its intended tone.
The confusion on the first front is based on trailers that are little more than people talking about politics and ants. This is actually surprisingly appropriate because BrainDead is best described as a Washington-based Invasion of the Body Snatchers meets that Simpsons gag in which Kent Brockman misinterprets footage from an overturned space ant farm, quickly capitulates and announces, "I, for one, welcome our new insect overlords" — but somehow somebody thought that was enough to fill 13 episodes. It probably isn't.
The second ambiguity comes from promotion linked to BrainDead creators Robert and Michelle King, best known for bringing cable prestige to network TV with The Good Wife. "Can the Kings do comedy?" I've heard people ask. The Good Wife was actually, at times, a tremendously funny show, but I always felt like it was at its most humorous when it put the least effort into pursuing laughter. At times, though, the series decided it was going to go for satire and even pseudo-parody and that was always my least favorite version of The Good Wife, lots of frantic marching through hallways as self-consciously wacky music played over broad performances.
BrainDead is, unfortunately, from the high-effort vein of the Kings' comedy, complete with a score that persistently announces its cartoonish intentions. There are enough likable actors and easily digestible bipartisan political jabs here for occasional amusement, but it's sometimes exhausting to watch a show trying this hard for such limited returns.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead, always appealing but still not getting the truly superlative TV vehicle she deserves, plays Laurel Healy, an aspiring documentary filmmaker forced by her Democratic party operative father (Zach Grenier) to work for her senator brother (Danny Pino) in exchange for paying off her student loan debts. It makes little sense, but it gets a character who doesn't much care for Washington to enter the Beltway as an outsider at exactly the moment at which strange things happen. First, a meteor lands in Russia. Then the meteor is transplanted to the Smithsonian. The people start behaving strangely. They forget things. And in a town already polarized along partisan lines, people become increasingly extreme in their beliefs and their desire to defeat the opposition. Oh, and there are really ominous, threatening CGI bugs that are probably related to most of what's going wrong.
Scripted by the Kings and directed by Robert King, the pilot begins with footage from the current election cycle and the text, "In the year 2016 there was a growing sense that people were losing their minds ... and no one knew why ... until now."
This introduces a level of political satire that's already thin, but still underdelivers. Using real speeches from Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton as evidence of superficial "Both sides are nuts" thought is one thing and then setting up a heightened "Certain people on both sides are nuts because of an insect-driven invasion" situation is another, but if you don't bring them together, you're not really saying anything. Nobody is going to think that you're being serious in insinuating that Trump and Clinton are mindless space zombies, so if you're going to introduce them as real figures in this fictional world, why not make that insinuation? But when BrainDead isn't using its footage of Trump and Clinton, it has no connection to the real world of Washington at all and that savvy headline-ripping the Kings did on The Good Wife is absent.
Three episodes offer little more political meat than Pino's Democratic senator and Tony Shalhoub's Republican senator going head-to-head over a government shutdown, because "government" or "no government" is the easiest way to boil down two different party ideologies without saying anything at all. Over three episodes, the political engine to BrainDead is a lot of senators sitting in rooms arguing about nothing and replacing leadership on whims, but not as a knowing commentary. This isn't like the Kings saying, "The Republicans aren't giving a hearing to a qualified Supreme Court candidate because space bugs have left them lethargic and obstructionist" or "Bernie Sanders wasn't a Democrat, but space bugs turned him into one to undermine the party from within." This is just, "Look, space bugs are making people in Washington act dumb, but not really dumb in ways that reinforce the way people are talking about them acting dumb." It's the difference between going deep and critiquing a system that many people feel is failing them and just making an easy joke about zombies in Washington over and over, with exploding heads whenever the plot starts to lag. It's the difference between Veep and a show with nothing to say after its opening hour.
The sense that BrainDead has a decent core idea and no urge to extrapolate on it becomes more pervasive as the subsequent episodes, not credited to the Kings as writers or directors, lose whatever minor energy and quirk the pilot had. The meandering hits early and by the second and third episodes, I wanted to spend more time with conspiracy-loving autodidact Gustav (Underground actor-to-watch Johnny Ray Gill) and doctor Rochelle (Nikki M. James) in their investigations into the bug-based conspiracy, rather than with Aaron Tveit's smug and uninteresting legislative aide Gareth and his illogical and chemistry-free flirtations with Laurel. Gustav feels urgency when nobody else in the show does and you almost can forgive him for how slow he is to jump to a conclusion that should be obvious for a paranoid eccentric. It's a lot easier to be engaged in what Gustav's doing than whether Pino's ultra-boring Senator Healy will be able to retake his leadership position in the Democratic caucus or why Shalhoub wanted to do this variation on his Men in Black role or why there's little consistency to the ways the space bugs are making people behave or why the things Laurel hass witnessed haven't shifted her priorities away from working on the voiceover to her film on Melanesian choirs.
This, by the way, is why CBS has had such a hard time making trailers for BrainDead that explain the stakes or main narrative. The show isn't sure either, though it seems to relate to repetition of "You Might Think" from The Cars.
Along the way, there are bits that hit. Megan Hilty and Beth Malone play generic Fox News and MSNBC anchors commenting on the main events with some savvy on media bias. The second and third episodes begin with plot-recapping songs that are darned catchy. The effects to create the space bugs are decent without being so good that the predatory critters ever become truly disturbing. And Winstead, especially when she's acting with James and Gill, has a moxie that's wasted in the legislative dud of the primary story.
The title for BrainDead is, unavoidably, a facile one-word review for a show that suffers from a lack of creativity and inspiration. But naturally, for a show that the network can't define and that the creatives couldn't pinpoint, "braindead" actually isn't even a good description for the results of the space buggery. Airing BrainDead in the summer removes some of its intellectual responsibilities, but a tony pedigree and being less blatantly stupid than Under the Dome are no reason to give it a pass.
Cast: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Aaron Tveit, Danny Pino, Tony Shalhoub, Johnny Ray Gill, Nikki M. James
Creators: Robert and Michelle King
Airs: Mondays, 10 p.m. ET/PT (CBS)