[This is a review of the BrainDead series premiere. There will be SPOILERS.]
In the midst of the ongoing American presidential campaign, CBS has debuted its newest political comedy-thriller - that also happens to include a pretty standard sci-fi plot in order to explain bipartisan politics. CBS's BrainDead was created by Robert and Michelle King, the married duo behind recently concluded legal drama The Good Wife, and follows documentary filmmaker Laurel Healy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who has returned home to Washington D.C. to help her brother, Democratic senator Luke Healy (Danny Pino).
In the series premiere, 'The Insanity Principle: How Extremism in Politics is Threatening Democracy in the 21st Century' - written by Robert and Michelle King and directed by Robert King - Laurel visits D.C. to see her brother. But, when the funding for her next documentary (about Melanesian choirs) falls through, she strikes a deal with her father Dean (Zach Grenier): She works for her brother for six months as a constituent consultant, and he funds half of her documentary.
On Laurel's first day working with Luke's constituents, Congress is attempting to come to a budget agreement between the Democrats and Republicans in order to avoid a government shutdown (like the real-world shutdown in 2013 that left many government employees without jobs). However, amidst the government politics, Laurel is approached by constituent Breanna Burke (Nilaja Sun) who is worried about her husband's strange behavior following an incident at his job as an engineer on a container ship.
Still, Laurel is drawn into the politics of D.C. when Gareth Ritter (Aaron Tveit), the legislative director to Republican senator Red Wheatus (Tony Shalhoub), offers a deal between his boss and Laurel's brother that could prevent the shutdown. Though Luke ignores the deal at first, Laurel and Gareth continue to work together - both in saving the government from shutdown and investigating the strange behavior of certain D.C. residents. However, the strange occurrences become even more common, and may be the cause for the end of the government shutdown
The sci-fi element of BrainDead largely takes a back seat to the politics in 'The Insanity Principle,' though the series premiere does set the stage for the alien influence that will play a major part in Capitol Hill's proceedings. In the episode, a meteor crashed in Russia - captured by the country's dash cameras - and recovered by scientists to be brought back to Washington's Smithsonian. Something escapes from the container while it's on route, affecting Mrs. Burke's husband, and once the meteor is brought to the Smithsonian, it is left alone due to the government shutdown forcing the facility employees to leave.
While on its own, a horde of ant-like bugs escape from the meteor and make their way outside to begin infecting people. The only two characters viewers are shown to be overtaken are Mrs. Burke, who is infected while her husband holds her down, and Senator Wheatus, who drinks excessively and passes out. The former scene with Mrs. Burke offers what little explanation viewers are given as to how the alien insect affects humans, as her husband explains: "You're going to be yourself, but a better part of yourself." While later, Senator Wheatus is shown to be infected by the alien ants, then what appears to be his brain falls out of his ear and explodes - demonstrating the show's title of BrainDead quite literally.
Without the added element in BrainDead of the setting on Capitol Hill, which provides the series with plenty of timely humor concerning the presidential race and drama between political parties, the alien invasion aspect of the series would be uninspired. The concept of an alien race taking human hosts and making them a "better" version of themselves has long existed in science fiction, popularized in the 1950s by Robert A. Heinlein's The Puppet Masters and Jack Finney's The Body Snatchers.
Still, though the sci-fi concept may not be entirely original, BrainDead seems to use its version of pod people to set up a more surreal look at the goings on of Capitol Hill. Plus, the vacant stares and the aliens' love of "You Might Think" by The Cars offer plenty of humor to what has often been a straight thriller storyline in science fiction. But the death of Dr. Daudier (Michael Potts), the Smithsonian scientist whose head explodes in front of Laurel, still gives BrainDead plenty of horror with its comedy.
As for the political machinations of the BrainDead series premiere, the episode sets up a number of threads to be explored throughout the season. Beyond Laurel and Gareth's investigation into the Burkes, they work together behind the scenes, forming a kind of partnership as Wheatus and Luke come to an agreement to end the government shutdown. But, when Wheatus is infected by the alien insects, he betrays Luke and makes a deal with a different Democratic senator, ending the budget crisis and causing the Republicans to take control of the senate.
Though a rather comedic take on American politics, BrainDead manages to comment on the fierce lines drawn between Democratic and Republican parties in the U.S., at one point with a character seemingly meant to reference MSNBC's Rachel Maddow commenting from a television screen in Luke's office that, "Bipartisanship is dead." Still, as the real U.S. presidential race gets underway, viewers may find more sense in BrainDead than in reality.
All in all, BrainDead is a fun exploration of how an undercover alien invasion would affect the U.S. political hub of Washington D.C., setting up a mysterious thriller element as the alien bugs take over more and more hosts while the government deals with a budget crisis. Though the science fiction storyline may so far seem to be taken straight from previous novels and films within the genre, it helps to add comedy to this surrealist political thriller.
Still, the Kings' handling of political drama in BrainDead proves to be with a deft hand (perhaps helping to lessen the loss of The Good Wife for fans), while the main cast shine in their respective roles - though Shalhoub will likely have more to work with and prove to be a standout performance going forward. For the most part, though, the series premiere sets up a compelling drama, sci-fi thriller, and political satire all in one in BrainDead.
BrainDead continues Monday June 20th with 'Playing Politics: Living Life in the Shadow of the Budget Showdown – A Critique' at 10pm on CBS.