'BrainDead' Is The Funniest, Most Cathartic Show You Should Be Watching

6:49 PM Amanda Prahl 0 Comments

If the current political climate in the real world has you frustrated and in search of a tamer reality, look no further than CBS's BrainDead, a political satire/horror comedy featuring extremism run amok, spreading paranoia, and politicians under the sway of some inexplicable entity. And heads exploding. There's a certain catharsis factor, one starts to realize.

All sarcasm aside, BrainDead- from the same talented team that made The Good Wife the last great network drama- is a cut above its summer-TV peers, mainly because of the genre-mashing that makes it a bit of a hard sell to a mainstream audience. Even so, the setup is surprisingly straightforward:

Documentary filmmaker Laurel is cash-strapped, so she agrees to go work for her brother Luke, a U.S. Senator, in exchange for backing from her powerful father. She gets embroiled in DC politics despite her best efforts (and embroiled in a flirtatious rivalry of sorts with Gareth, chief of staff to one of Luke's Republican rivals), and gets drawn into the mystery of why people's heads are exploding and half of DC has sudden gone extremist in their political views (on both sides of the aisle). The answer, naturally, is alien space bugs, which she reluctantly discovers upon teaming up with a conspiracy theorist and a doctor. Here's everything you need to know to start:

BrainDead, in many ways, bears the hallmarks of series creators Robert and Michelle King: a cynical attitude towards politics and politicians, a finely honed sense of ironic juxtapositions, and a considerable dose of absurd humor delivered with a straight face. But BrainDead, being the strange mix of genres it is, takes all these elements up several notches. See: jaunty musical recaps, above. Which, incidentally, also have the best summary of the relationship between Laurel and Gareth (and pretty much everything else):


The satirical nature of the show lends itself to a particularly absurd style of comedy, with a healthy sense of its own absurdity. The wry musical recaps set the tone from the get-go, and the deadpan manner in which brains explode or fall out of people's ears is funny all on its own. Find me another show on TV that leads to the hashtag #salamisex.

You think I'm joking. I'm not.

In comic tone, the show is closest to the dearly departed cult classic Pushing Daisies. Even in more uneven episodes, the sheer attention to detail is at a level I aspire to; for instance, one side effect of bug infection is losing one's physical balance (not subtle, but bear with me). The side to which the infected physically lean matches their political "leanings." It's little details like this that place the show above its peers.

The catharsis factor cannot be overlooked when it comes to BrainDead. We often look to our arts and entertainment when the real world fails us in some way. In some cases, we seek escapism, hence the popularity of broad sitcoms and dense fantasies. In others, however, we want to feel better somehow. There's a delicious bit of schadenfreude at work in the appeal of BrainDead: there's a tiny voice that is entertained by the politicians who have failed us getting their brains devoured by alien ants. It's also one of the most darkly humorous suggestions on television right now: that brain-eating alien parasites only make the highest level of politics a little more insane.

One of the elements of the series that seems to go almost unnoticed is the political commentary implicit in the character of Luke Healy. In the show, Luke keeps trying to get things done despite the (still unknown) invasion that has infected a decent chunk of Capitol heavyweights. And, because of those space-bugs that cause both sides to dig in their heels, he gets nothing for his troubles except a growing loss of leadership in his party. His ineffectiveness- save for one act of heroic leadership in Episode 4- is almost a joke at this point.

A summary of reactions to the current election cycle. Or Luke losing. Again.

But characterizing Luke as the perpetual failure is missing the point. Luke is, in essence, a stand-in for the moderate voices of reason in the real political arena. In any other time and place, he would be a major candidate for party leadership and even the presidency might not be out of reach. Why? Because he's a strong leader, he's willing and able to balance compromise with standing firm, and he does, in the end, actually give a damn about the people he serves. The worst that can be said about him is that he's opportunistic, cynical, and cheats on his wife- in other words, no worse than many politicians who have done some good. But in this world, one dominated by polar extremes shouting at each other to the point of insanity, he can't get anywhere. Sound familiar? Perhaps the alien-bugs-equals-extremism commentary is a bit on-the-nose, but this element rings a little too true.

That's an understatement.

None of this would work, of course, without an exceptional cast, and this is one of the areas where the Kings' track record continues to shine. As Laurel, Mary Elizabeth Winstead has what should be a star-making performance, wry and smart and trying to be distant but too compassionate for her own good. She has no patience for the political games, and yet is not half bad at them, and Winstead plays that exasperation perfectly. Opposite her, Aaron Tveit displays the same expressiveness and charisma that made him a bona fide Broadway leading man. His Gareth is jaded, but just barely- he still has some of that youthful idealism and old-fashioned moderate tendencies. And, despite his ambitious, occasionally morally murky actions, he can't seem to make the earnestly decent heart within him shut up. He's what one imagines The Good Wife's Will Gardner might have been like as a young man.

The supporting cast is, as ever, filled with hilarious, sharp turns. Johnny Ray Gill is hilarious as Gustav, the conspiracy nut-slash-genius whose deadpan paranoia is as reliably funny as his loyal friendship is heartwarming. Rounding out the trio of bug-fighters is Tony winner Nikki M. James as the brilliant doctor Rochelle Daudier, wary at first, then the quick-thinking, voice of dry reason. Zach Grenier came over from TGW with the Kings, and here, as Laurel and Luke's political power player of a father, turns in a gleefully self-serving performance that makes David Lee look like a teddy bear. Tony Shalhoub has a similarly scene-chewing turn as Red Wheatus, a Republican senator infested by alien bugs and now an uber-conservative who spews deliciously awful nuggets of dialogue and the occasional nutty non sequitur.

Politics are everywhere right now, and there's no avoiding them even in fiction. BrainDead is, in its way, an important and even cathartic antidote for this time and place. By not taking political sides, it more accurately reflects many ordinary people's views on modern politics: it's sheer madness, and brain-eating alien bugs are as logical an explanation as any. Take the laughs where you can get them- we need all the laughter we can get.

BrainDead airs Sundays on CBS at 10/9c.