This article contains information that could be considered too revealing according to our spoiler policy. Proceed with caution. You can't unsee it!Reason The show doesn't premiere until a few hours after publish time; we got a screener.
Would You Be Crazy To Watch BrainDead?
Will the new political/sci-fi drama/comedy be what you need to get through this election season, or will it make your head explode?
What Is This Thing?
Laurel Healy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is an unsuccessful documentary filmmaker and the only member of her family who doesn't work in politics. When she returns to D.C. for a family party, her father (Zach Grenier) offers to pay off her student debt if she'll take a job working for her brother, Senator Luke Healy (Danny Pino), essentially so that he'll have a spy in his son's office. She negotiates him down to six months and financing her latest doc no one will want to see, and agrees. On her first day, the government shuts down due to a partisan budget feud, so she's in deeper than she expected, but it turns out she has a real knack for this and actually enjoys it.
But lest you think this is just The Good Sister, there's more! (There's a certain pleasure in going into this next bit of what-the-fuckery unspoiled, so you may want to skip this next paragraph if you don't already know the premise of this show. You've been warned!) Remember that dashboard camera video of a meteor crashing in Russia that went viral a few years ago? Well, the meteor has been recovered and brought back to the Smithsonian, and it contains...passengers: little bugs that infect human hosts, replacing part of their brains and altering their personalities just enough to be noticeable but not so much that they're complete zombies. If you resist them...something very bad happens. Naturally, given the location, the aliens start taking over politicians very quickly.
So basically it's The West Wing meets The Good Wife meets Mars Attacks meets The X-Files.
When Is It On?
Mondays at 10 PM on CBS (and on Amazon Prime four days later).
Why Was It Made Now?
In case you haven't noticed, the current political climate has people a wee bit on edge. (If you truly haven't noticed, the show will tell you in its opening that "people are losing their minds.") While it's been a couple of years since the last government shutdown -- though the fact that they're common enough for the words "the last government shutdown" to make sense is telling -- and that meteor actually landed three years ago, the show is set firmly in the present, with footage of Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders backgrounding the scenes of fictional senators.
What's Its Pedigree?
It's created by Michelle and Robert King, best known as the creators and showrunners of The Good Wife, and since they stayed committed to that project all the way through, this is their first new show in seven years. The biggest names in the cast are Winstead, and Tony Shalhoub as Republican senator Red Wheatus. (How about that name in case you weren't sure this is satire?). But basically every other actor is a recognizable face, especially if you're a fan of The Good Wife or New York theatre. Pino also plays Alex Vargas on Scandal (he does look very senatorial), and Grenier, of course, was fan favorite David Lee on TGW. Aaron Tveit (Graceland, Grease Live!) also stars as Wheatus's chief aide, and Jan Maxwell (Gossip Girl, Broadway's Follies for which she should have won a Tony not that I'm still mad about it) has a wonderfully scenery-chewing role as Healy's in-party rival. Beth Malone (Broadway's Fun Home) plays, basically, Rachel Maddow, and Smash's Megan Hilty plays the show's Megyn Kelly, in two of the most brilliant bits of casting I've seen all year. Nikki M. James (The Good Wife, Broadway's The Book Of Mormon) joins the cast in the second episode as an apparent regular.
I love that Laurel is instantly good at her job, so even though she's our newbie entry-into-the-world character, she dispenses with her exposition duty very quickly, and we don't have to spend a lot of time watching her fail. This is a smart woman who eyerolls things like, "Oh please, tell me more about 'this town.'" Winstead is great in the role, and has fantastic sparring-partner-you-know-she'll-bone-eventually chemistry with Tveit, who's starting to get typecast as this sort of guy for the simple reason that he's very very good at it. If you liked The Good Wife's take on the world and its casting, the political satire here will probably land with you.
At the beginning, they don't lean too heavily on the sci-fi stuff, treating the alien bugs as just another D.C. conspiracy to uncover, a straightforward approach I really like. People know something's up, but they don't know what, and they naturally don't leap right to "alien brain bugs." But that starts to shift, somewhat out of necessity, in the third episode (the last one we received for review), so it will be interesting to see where it goes.
I was a bigger fan of The Good Wife's later seasons than most people, but I still found their more heavy-handed issue episodes -- and, worse, their "funny" episodes -- really hit-or-miss, with a strong tilt toward miss. There's a lot of that here, both on the serious side (these are characters who say things like "Don't be afraid to use my power" with a straight face) and the more overtly comic side (think the NSA nerds on TGW).
Plus, it's more than a little on-the-nose, isn't it? Politicians are crazy, am I right? It's like they're aliens! Aliens with lobotomies! Ha! The infected all listen to The Cars's "You Might Think" on repeat, which (a) this isn't Battlestar Galactica and that's not "All Along The Watchtower," and (b) "you might think I'm crazy," WE GET IT. (I'd love to know how many songs with "crazy" in the lyrics they went through before they got to one they could afford to play repeatedly.)
The second-rate Danny Elfman score under most of the bug-related scenes tells us this is all a big joke, and after the premiere the previouslies are narrated by Jonathan Coulton in song. Just in case "Here's what you missed on Glee" wasn't twee enough for you. If you have to try this hard to remind people your show is a comedy.... Also I'm not sure it really is that kind of comedy, so there's a disconnect in the tone.
The political/workplace satire is obviously where the Kings excel, and the sci-fi stuff comes off a little heavy-handed and dopey as it moves more into the foreground. But that's kind of its nature, and I'm as big a fan of The X-Files as I am of The Good Wife so I'm pretty well hooked. And it's not like we need another "realistic" political conspiracy show, so this is a nice spin on the genre. I hope they're able to maintain the mostly straight-faced tone as things get crazier, though. Not that it should be The Walking Dead -- just that playing it mostly straight is, to me, what makes it funny. The Coulton intros, for example, are actually very cute, I'm just not sure what they're doing here, and if that's the endgame I'll be disappointed. Also, the Kings say they have four seasons planned, which even at thirteen episodes each seems like a lot for this premise? But so far so good. The acting is great and I could use something a little off-kilter in my summer viewing schedule. I at least want to know what the aliens' plans are, and whether anyone will end up quoting Starship Troopers.