BrainDead Is a Delightfully Weird Show

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Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Laurel Healy. Photo: Macall Polay/CBS

CBS is a confusing television network. You look at its schedule for the upcoming fall TV season — a slate powerwashed in NCISes and standard sitcoms, including, God help us all, a new Kevin James comedy actually called Kevin Can Wait — and you think, This place is a holding station for all of the world’s most basic TV. Then you watch BrainDead, a CBS summer series that premieres Monday night at ten and is as ambitious as anything you might find on any devil-may-care streaming platform, and you’re reminded that these days great television can emerge anywhere, at any time. Sort of like the bugs that keep invading the craniums of the people on BrainDead.

Yeah, you heard me: This is a show about D.C. politics in which a bunch of creepy crawly things emerge from a meteor, march into the ears of various members of Congress and other Washington types, and mentally transform them into extremely focused, ultra-partisan, smoothie-drinking robot hardliners. Tonally, it is part House of Cards, part Veep, a teensy bit Walking Dead, and just whimsical enough to feel like a distant cousin of Pushing Daisies. (Example of said whimsy: The “previously on BrainDead” summaries that open each episode are presented in musical form.)

I’ve watched the first three episodes of this show, and I’m not sure the whole thing gels perfectly just yet. But BrainDead is still engaging, deliciously weird, and well worth adding to your DVR rotation. I love it simply for existing and, especially, for existing on such a traditional TV network.

To be fair to CBS, BrainDead hasn’t shown up here totally (cough) from outer space. It comes from Robert and Michelle King, the married duo who also created The Good Wife, the most well-regarded CBS drama in recent memory. And its sci-fi-thriller elements actually fit in well with other recent CBS summer fare, like the departed Under the Dome and the still-going Zoo, which returns for a second season later this month. But BrainDead is still its own, distinctive beast, a work of horror-comedy that’s so of the moment, it actually takes place very specifically in 2016.

The first episode opens with a visual blast of multiple newscasts, including footage of Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, and Bernie Sanders on the campaign trail, with a title card laid over it. “In the year 2016, there was a growing sense that people were losing their minds ... ” says the text, “and no one knew why … until now.”

From there, the series introduces us to Laurel Healy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a documentary filmmaker who winds up working as an aide to her brother, a Democratic senator from Maryland named Luke Healy (Danny Pino, formerly of Cold Case and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit), after her father promises he’ll help fund her latest project if she helps her brother with his constituent work. Immediately, Laurel gets thrust into the chaos of a looming government shutdown and a mystery involving a strange package shipped to the Smithsonian, and supposedly signed off on by Luke’s office.

That package contains the meteor that’s spawning all those brain-deconstructing insects, but Laurel doesn’t know that right away. All she knows initially is that she’s seeing enough strange behavior — including individuals’ heads actually exploding (note: a lot of heads explode on this show), sudden, extreme shifts in political attitudes, and an inordinate number of people listening to “You Might Think” by the Cars — that she has no choice but to go full Scooby-Doo and investigate. 

The consistent use of “You Might Think" is a great example of what makes BrainDead so sly and clever. Given its mix of buoyant melody with lyrics about an unavoidable stalker, the track is an ideal match for the show’s blend of humor and paranoia about an insidiousness affliction that keeps growing more severe. The fact that its music video famously featured Cars front man Ric Ocasek turning into a fly — yet another human gone buggy — earns it some bonus points.

But perhaps the smartest decision the makers of BrainDead made was casting Winstead in the lead. As she’s shown repeatedly in films such as Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and 10 Cloverfield Lane, the actress has a knack for exuding a sense of control while outlandish events unfold around her. Even when Laurel is addled or legitimately freaked out after a dude’s head explodes all over her, she radiates a quiet confidence that also works to keep BrainDead centered when it could easily tilt right off its axis. It helps that she’s surrounded by equally confident and compelling actors, including Tony Shalhoub as Luke’s Republican rival Red Wheatus, a Marylander who emphasizes his Os like a true native, and Aaron Tveit (recently seen as Danny Zuko in Fox’s Grease Live!), Wheatus’s legislative director and a colleague who generates palpable sparks with Laurel.

The natural chemistry between Winstead and Tveit injects an element of romance into a show that’s already juggling a lot of genres: sci-fi, satire, political thriller, light horror. At times, BrainDead feels like it might buckle under the weight of everything it’s trying to do, especially in its first episode. But as it progresses, it becomes more comfortable with its own quirky, multilayered tone.

Unlike Veep — which deliberately never identifies anyone’s political affiliation — BrainDead jumps directly into the partisan fray. In episode two, Laurel, a Democrat, is horrified when she runs into an old, free-spirited writer friend who’s morphed into a conservative working for an organization that sounds like it was founded by Donald Trump. (The group’s name: Help America Rise Again.) We’re clearly invited to share in Laurel’s horror, although Laurel later apologizes to her friend for being overly judgmental of her choices.

Actually, despite the fact that it has a Democrat for a protagonist, BrainDead’s political point of view is more pro-bipartisanship than anything else. On more than one occasion, the show’s wonks refer wistfully to the era when Republican president Ronald Reagan and Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, a Democrat, could disagree on the issues but still enjoy a beer together. (That era, by the way, just happens to be the same decade when that Cars song was so popular.) That time, the show tells us, has long since passed.

Things are getting even more ideologically fractured in this country. BrainDead makes the absurd but entertaining case that this is happening because of freaky invasive bugs. But the subtext — that perhaps there is no cure for this divisiveness — is the part that’s really scary.