With a few exceptions, pilots don’t make for amazing television. (One of those exceptions is The Good Wife, the other series created by BrainDead’s Michelle and Robert King, but that’s a different story.) Pilots aren’t really a chance to tell a complete, engaging story from start to finish. They’re a way to introduce us to a show’s premise and characters, do a little world building, and carve out a specific tone and voice.
All of that is to say: Don’t be too nervous about BrainDead just yet, even though the pilot doesn’t immediately establish the show as appointment television (if appointment television even exists anymore). It’s just doing what pilots do. And despite the fact that they are very different shows, it suffers under the weight of being compared to The Good Wife, one of the greatest TV dramas of all time. It’s an unfair burden to shoulder, but it’ll likely be stuck shouldering it all the same. Even if you were willing to set aside comparisons between the two shows … nope, sorry, there’s Zach Grenier, playing an ever-so-slightly less manipulative overlord than he did on The Good Wife. Don’t get me wrong, I’m delighted to see him, and he’s already one of the show’s most compelling characters, all ensconced in a James Bond–style lair in a D.C. townhouse. He just makes it that much harder to mentally separate the two series.
There are two main components of BrainDead’s pilot: a congressional budget crisis that leads to a D.C. shutdown and a pack of ants that invade and zombify brains. The Kings want to make it very clear that the show is happening not in some fantasy world, but in our world; the show’s epigraph presents it as an explanation of why the American political climate is roughly as nuanced and intellectually engaged as a pile of hot garbage. “In the year 2016, there was a growing sense that people were losing their minds, and no one knew why, until now.” It’s ants! Alien ants! Ants that will make a zombie out of you! The show further suggests that the ants came from the 2013 meteor that landed in Ukraine, which is a nice bit of world-building.
Just as crisp, classical music was the soundtrack of The Good Wife (whoops, there I go again), BrainDead is underscored by the decidedly less dulcet tones of American cable news. We see Clinton and Sanders and Trump pontificating; we hear pundits inanely debating and reframing the pros and cons of each presidential candidate. If the ants aren’t turning us into zombies, BrainDead seems to argue, the constant drone of the 24-hour news cycle surely will.
The show is helmed by Laurel, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who takes on a role in her brother’s senatorial office so she can save up money for her documentary about Melanesian choir music, as we all do from time to time. Winstead is one of the best things the show has going for it — which is really saying something, as the rest of the cast is pretty stacked, too. While taking constituent meetings for her brother, Laurel meets Breanna, whose husband started acting peculiar after opening a mysterious container on a cargo ship. Later, we’ll learn that the ship was carrying a sample of the Ukrainian meteor to the States for further study. Breanna’s story sends Laurel into sleuth mode — a mode she’s curiously well-prepared for, considering her previous work experience includes making documentary films about obscure types of music, but I’ll allow it. First, she goes to Breanna’s husband’s ship, then to the Smithsonian, and finally to an ambulance, where the brain of the one scientist who maybe could have provided some answers explodes all over her.
Breanna won’t mind much. By the time Laurel scratches the surface of the mystery, the ants have already gotten to her, too. The moment of her … um, infestation? Zombification? I’m unclear about the proper verb, but the moment the ants crawl through the window, up onto the bed, and into her ear is the first properly creepy moment of the series, and it’s a good bridge to the first properly gory moment of the series. It comes a few minutes later, when ants find their way to Senator Wheatus (played by Tony Shalhoub, who I’m delighted to see on my television again). Not only do the ants crawl into one ear, they push a chunk of his brain out of the other. He pokes the brain chunk as it floats in its own juices on his pillow.
I’m glad the show establishes the mythology of the zombies so clearly and cleanly within the first episode: The ants (probably) come from the meteor and dig into your brain. After they push a chunk of it out, you become vacant, stare-y, oddly chipper, and decidedly dumb.
Since we already know why these people are zombies, Laurel better crack the case quickly — and not just because it would be boring to watch her spend several episodes trying to figure out something we learned in the pilot. The show is constructed on the idea that Laurel is uncommonly smart and curious. I hope she stays that way, rather than spend the first season as a walking shrug emoji.
The show struggles a bit with making the political side of its story compelling enough. With the political climate as it is, do viewers really want to watch endless debates about a potential budget shutdown? That side of the pilot is buoyed by performances from Danny Pino, who plays Laurel’s senator brother, and Aaron Tveit, who plays a staffer in Senator Wheatus’s office. Tveit brings the charisma of a Broadway song-and-dance man to the role, and if this winds up being the series that finally makes him a household name, I’ll be delighted.
It’s no secret that BrainDead has a tough road ahead. Keeping the show’s comic-thriller tone balanced will be a feat on its own. But there’s a moment in the pilot that proves the Kings might be up to the task. The morning after the ants crawl into his head, Senator Wheatus springs out of bed, pops his brain-tainted sheets into the washing machine, and begins playing what is apparently the zombie anthem: The Cars’ “You Might Think.” A tiny bit of cerebral fluid pools in his ear, then starts to drip out. In that moment, it’s clear that this show could be a hell of a lot of fun.