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Understanding politics is complicated enough, but CBS’ new series BrainDead takes things a step further by taking over politicians’ agendas with brain-eating bugs.
This wacky, absurd concept is the brainchild of The Good Wife creators Robert and Michelle King, who wanted to do something completely opposite from the world of Alicia Florrick they lived in for seven seasons.
“The grounding [on The Good Wife] was how someone would get back on their feet and not have constantly extreme events being thrown at her. There really is a pattern to her workday,” Robert King tells The Hollywood Reporter. “In BrainDead we wanted kind of the reverse — we wanted one extraordinary event that takes our lead character into worlds of absurdity and she’s not able to handle it.”
Like Alicia, there’s an “intelligent female character who’s grounded at the center of it,” Michelle says. Lead protagonist Laurel Healy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is a documentary filmmaker-turned-Hill staffer from a political family who is reluctant to get into government herself. But once she starts seeing strange changes in people around her, she dives in head-first.
“Once she’s in it, her natural competitiveness and her innate political side come out. She’s someone who has a real need for truth and authenticity in her life,” Mary Elizabeth Winstead says. “Once things get weird with the bugs, she feels like there’s so many layers to break through to get to what’s actually going on, so she keeps picking away and picking away and picking away. I think it starts out as almost a compulsion of just needing to get to the truth … and her nature of wanting to help people makes her want to see it through to the end.”
In spite of the creepy-crawly drama of the bug invasion, BrainDead was created as a comic-thriller series to add in both satire and comedy to the plot. “We’re able to go a lot more absurd and go more to analogy and metaphor through comedy,” Michelle King explains. “If we went straight at the politics, it could become very earnest very quickly.”
“The comedy at times feels like a throwback to 1940s romantic comedies like His Girl Friday, and then at times the show feels like an ‘80s sci-fi action movie,” Winstead says. “The Kings are given such freedom to really go wild and create what they want to create, which is so rare … CBS is just kind of letting them fly their freak flag on this.”
Co-star Aaron Tveit — who plays Gareth Ritter, Legislative Director to Republican Senator Red Wheatus (Tony Shalhoub) — echoes her sentiments. “Because we have this device of these bugs, it gives us a lot of liberty and room to do this crazy stuff, but it’s still grounded in this world,” he says. “We just have a lot more license to go for things that are more off the wall.”
Inspiration for the series came more from the government shutdown in 2013, wherein the Kings saw “extremism and lack of cooperation” going on in D.C. “After that, we saw a connection between that and Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” Robert notes. “It seems obvious.”
Timing the series during an election year was on purpose, but they could have never predicted just how crazy real politics would get as they started filming.
“This was [greenlit] before Trump announced. This was before things went really wacko,” Robert reveals. “We were just excited just with the idea that it was going to be during the campaign. Then when you got Trump involved and Bernie Sanders started doing well, it just became so wild.”
“The show is so fresh and current and reflects the kind of unpredictable things that seem to be happening,” Tony Shalhoub adds. “Politics are becoming almost a parody, so the challenge is, how do you outdo that on a show?” Adds Tveit: “The writers have said they haven’t been able to satirize what’s happening in the real world fast enough.”
The central political struggle on BrainDead is between Democratic Senator Luke Healy (Danny Pino) and Republican senator Red Wheatus — aided by Laurel and Gareth, respectively — who frequently butt heads on the Hill.
“Luke definitely falls in the moral gray area. He’s very strategic, he is grounded but intelligent, and he comes from a political family so he grew up swimming in these waters. It’s something he’s very comfortable with,” Pino describes. “He is confident, borderline cocky and entitled, but underneath that he wants to do right and help people. He’s a politician with a heart of gold in spite of himself sometimes. I look forward to reading every script because there’s no telling as to what he will do.”
“Luke is more political than Laurel in terms of being calculating, being willing to do whatever it takes to get his agenda pushed,” Winstead adds. “He has this kind of push and pull between being a politician and being a bleeding-heart good person, and she helps keep him in check.”
Wheatus, on the other hand, isn’t in such great shape. “He’s loves to drink; he’s a lush,” Shalhoub previews. “He’s a career politician completely throwing in the towel. He’s become pretty jaded and given up the fight. He’s not a bad guy — he’s just been beaten down by the political system and become a compromiser.”
However, Wheatus’ right-hand man makes up for his own lack of initiative at this point in his career. “You get the sense that he’s got a drunk senator that passes out on the couch most of the day,” Tveit says. “Gareth can put anything in front of him and he’s going to sign it … so [Gareth’s] personal agenda has probably been pushed through the senator’s office a little bit.” And one of Gareth’s initiatives is what gets him and Laurel to meet in the pilot.
Tveit describes Gareth as an “old-school Republican who isn’t from a political silver-spoon family and had to work his ass off to be where he is” with a “strong moral compass.” But since he falls “more in the middle” of conservative and liberal, it makes it a little easier for him and Democrat Laurel to forge a relationship.
“Their dynamic is really fascinating and interesting. There’s obviously some spark there, and they’re a little bit antagonistic towards each other,” Tveit previews. “The Kings have been kind of masterful in a way that they’ve unfolded this and that it’s so not a typical television relationship in that way. It pushes, it pulls, it goes forward, it comes back, it goes all over the place. We really don’t know, episode to episode, where we’re going to be at together, which is just great.”
Adds Winstead: “They really represent the best of their respective parties in the sense that they both are very idealistic and young and hope for the best in terms of society and government, and just want to think that people are good and that they just want to progress. That’s why I think our show is kind of hopeful at the end of the day because you have characters like this who, in spite of their differences, find a connection between one another.”
Just as Laurel and Gareth’s relationship sets apart from the typical TV will-they-or-won’t-they, the Kings have a unique long-term structure envisioned for the show as well.
“We’re designing it that the 13 [episodes] do stand alone, but we’ve thought out four seasons down the road, should there be such luck,” Michelle says.
“The first 13 take place in DC, and there’s an answer to the season. The second season takes place in Wall Street, third season is Silicon Valley, and the fourth season is Hollywood,” Robert teases. “We’re hoping to take as much of the cast as we can to the next stage.”
Winstead is definitely on board. “I would love to see Laurel really take this down whatever avenue it’s going to lead to and really see it through to the end. It seems she’s really willing to take these bugs on and do what it takes to kind of eradicate them,” she says. “I don’t know the mythology of the bugs in terms of how that’s going to progress and what that’s going to mean, specifically for Laurel, but I really do want to find out. I hope I get to find out.”
BrainDead airs on Mondays at 10 p.m. on CBS.
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