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‘BrainDead’ Is Broadcast TV’s Trojan Horse

CBS/Getty Images
CBS/Getty Images

Like The Good Wife, BrainDead was cocreated by married couple and creative partners Robert and Michelle King. Like The Good Wife, BrainDead aims to show us the politicians behind the public posturing.

Unlike The Good Wife, BrainDead is about a horde of mind-controlling bugs from outer space that eat the brains of the D.C. elite.

Surprisingly, BrainDead takes the “D.C. elite” part far more seriously than it has to. Mary Elizabeth Winstead stars as Laurel Healy, a wide-eyed documentarian short on cash who agrees to work for her brother Luke (Danny Pino), a Democratic senator, so that their dad will pay off her student loans. Soon, she notices something’s afoot — on top of an impending government shutdown.

More than the space bugs, this is the heart of BrainDead’s humor: that a D.C. in the grip of a sinister alien hivemind is no more nonsensical than the D.C. we already have. The Kings twist the knife by filling the background with real cable news footage from our ongoing election, inevitably a Donald Trump greatest hits collection. “They’ve lost their minds!” is a frequent refrain from outside observers, and that’s before heads start exploding (a common and wondrously graphic side effect of resisting the bugs).

Easy as it might be to reformat Trump’s Twitter account into a script and leave it at that, BrainDead has an actual message about the State of Our Country. The Kings’ real Big Bad is plain ol’ political partisanship, and the bugs aren’t its instigators so much as its catalyst, turning Tony Shalhoub’s drunken GOP man into a smoothie-swilling party warrior. To stop the apocalypse, both alien- and self-inflicted, Laurel has to team up with her across-the-aisle love interest, played with appropriate Hill staffer smarm ’n’ charm by Aaron Tveit.

It’s a message that’s ever so slightly out of date. But it automatically makes BrainDead one of the most ambitious new network shows in recent memory — thematically, of course, but also tonally. “Let’s talk about the evils of a rigid party line” is not a premise that coexists easily with “Oh shit, BRAINS!”

Over the three episodes I’ve seen, BrainDead hasn’t yet revealed how to stop the bugs, what their endgame is, or if an endgame even exists. But it has demonstrated a kind of secret genius: that the only way to counter the real-life absurdity of modern politics is with made-up absurdity of one’s own. In an election in which satirists not named Samantha Bee have struggled endlessly with how to handle Trump, the approach stands out. Think of it as fighting fire with comet-borne insects.

It’s honestly hard to tell how much I enjoy BrainDead on its own merits and how much I enjoy it because this crazy, delightful show is running, of all places, on CBS. Big Bang Theory CBS. “Your parents still watch it live” CBS. And most notoriously, “We just got roasted for declaring a pilot’s audience ‘too female’ for our knockout fall lineup of MacGyver reboots and Kevin James sitcoms” CBS. This is a network that sees a woman-led series as too risky for the big time, let alone one in which said woman investigates extraterrestrials with an inexplicable fondness for The Cars.

Into this insistently unhip landscape — which, to be fair, includes both the underrated Mom and, come midseason, Laverne Cox in broadcast television’s first series-regular role for a trans character played by a trans actor — comes a show that’s weirder and more daring than anything on broadcast shy of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. But where that groundbreaking dramedy was engineered with cable in mind, BrainDead was born and bred at the Eye: It’s the very first product of the Kings’ three-year production deal with the network following The Good Wife’s seven-season run (and before its upcoming Baranski-centric spinoff on CBS’s nascent streaming service).

Which makes sense, because BrainDead has the feeling of two well-respected creative minds putting almost a decade of accumulated goodwill to use. For starters, it got to skip the overcrowded, inefficient playground line that is pilot season with a straight-to-series order; its first season also clocks in at a relatively brief 13 episodes, a length more typical of premium cable than network. Those are significant advantages in crafting a well-constructed, serialized story. That starts with the pilot: Freed from the burden of cramming a show’s worth of ideas into a single hour, BrainDead’s premiere dives straight into the bugs, brains, and brinksmanship.

Infrastructure aside, though, what truly distinguishes BrainDead from its peers is its point of view. This is a show with a thesis — about what’s ailing America, and what we can do to fix it — advanced in every scene of every episode. And while BrainDead is careful to hold both sides at fault, making any argument about politics is antithetical to the big-tent philosophy of a network that needs as many eyeballs as possible to make money.

At its best, BrainDead has a sprightly, puckish vibe reminiscent of Pushing Daisies–era Bryan Fuller. Which is fitting, because the last time I felt this pleasantly surprised by a show this unlikely was Fuller’s Hannibal, whose specificity, short seasons, and orgiastic violence felt imported directly from HBO. Hannibal, and now BrainDead, felt like a Trojan horse smuggling excitement and experimentation into a moribund network landscape. Hopefully BrainDead can keep the con going even longer.