Robert and Michelle King on the Politics of BrainDead and Who Wasn’t Happy About The Good Wife Finale

Mary Elizabeth Winstead in BrainDead. Photo: Michael Parmelee/CBS

It’s been barely six weeks since The Good Wife ended its six-season run on CBS, but creators Robert and Michelle King are already back with a new series. Debuting Monday at 10 p.m., BrainDead is a political satire-cum-thriller which theorizes the current dysfunction in Washington, D.C., is actually the result of brain-eating alien insects. (A press release last summer announcing the straight-to-series project described it as “The Strain crossed with The West Wing,” and based on the pilot, that seems pretty accurate.) With a cast led by Mary Elizabeth Winstead (10 Cloverfield Lane), Aaron Tveit (Gossip Girl), and Tony Shalhoub, the series will try to serve up the sophisticated storytelling for which the Kings have become known while also offering up a healthy dose of dark comedy and sci-fi scares. Vulture caught up with the creators last week for a brief phone conversation about what inspired this left turn, whether the rise of Bernie Sanders signals the beginnings of a new liberal tea party and why Robert King’s mother was not happy about the finale of The Good Wife.

Tell me the genesis of this project. How did you decide to begin work on another show while still doing The Good Wife, and why this idea?

Michelle King: We went in and pitched this idea while the 100th episode of Good Wife was filming [in fall 2014], so it’s been a while.

What inspired you? What was the process of it coming to life in your head?

Robert King: It was based on the last government shutdown … a few years ago. There was this very weird moment in D.C. where everything seemed to go off the rails. Not just was there was this lack of strategy connected to political machinations, it all seemed based on emotion and this odd thought that if there were a government shutdown, Obamacare would stop. And at the same time, there were all these oddities like people committing suicide on the Mall, and it just felt like everything came unhinged. That connected in our mind with a different way to do a political show, one way that doesn’t treat politics in the very post-West Wing way as dark. We also had this Invasion of the Body Snatchers theme, which is where we felt this lack of strategy came from — this tendency towards extremism, it was almost like it was infectious. It was moving from person to person. So we wanted to play as a new sort of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, but with the political theme going on now.

This does seem like a very big leap from The Good Wife. I’m wondering what your agents and the execs at CBS said to you when you first told them the idea. And why did you decide to go in such a different direction?

MK: I don’t think we did run it by agents. We went in and pitched it to CBS. And we were surprised and delighted that they immediately loved it. They said they were hungry for something like this, so that was a bit of a shock for us.

RK: At that point they were starting [doing] summer series, because of the success of Under the Dome, and we were very intent on not piling onto another 22-episode-a-year show. So it fit in with their loop. As for why? You know, Good Wife was a departure from our usual genres. I’ve written mountain-climbing movies, courtroom in Russia, killer cockroach movies. We don’t want to be stuck in one genre — you want to leave yourself open to do different things.

You’re not known as genre people. Is this your first genre-type thing?

MK: We were looking to do a political satire, and do it in a way that wouldn’t be earnest. So it seemed like a fun idea to marry it to a sci-fi and make it a genre show, to keep it from seeming pretentious and allowing there to be a lot of laughs.

RK: I did something a lot like this starting out. My first [project] was with Roger Corman, a movie called The Nest, which was about killer cockroaches. So for me it’s a little bit of a return to the beginning.

What was the tone you were going for with the show? There’s comedy but also legitimate tension and a few scares. I got a bit of a Men in Black vibe watching the first episode.

RK: That might be partly because of Tony Shalhoub’s involvement, too. You know, if you’re looking for tones out there that you’re reaching for, Men in Black is always a good one. Beautifully shot, but also beautifully written, with some suspense, gags. And some of the shooting style is similar in ours: We’re using prime lenses, we don’t use any zoom lenses. We tend a little more towards wide-angle, as in Men in Black, and all the Barry Sonnenfeld movies. And then the other one, just for us as writers, is you’re always reaching for Paddy Chayefsky. You always fall short, but you’re trying to kind of follow that great Network tonal shift dance he does. The Peter Finch story is very broad but the William Holden story is very realistic. And we kind of want to live in both those worlds.

BrainDead sets up a fictional D.C., which exists in a parallel universe to the real one. Even though the main characters in the show are made up, we hear snippets from Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in the show. And watching the pilot, there seems to be a theory at play that both Democrats and Republicans are equally at fault for the dysfunction in our politics. Are you worried about setting up a false equivalency by doing that? Or am I just being blinded by my own partisan leanings toward the left?

RK: At least on The Good Wife, we always wanted to be fair to both sides. So even when there was an abortion issue, you always wanted to do something different than preaching to the choir. I do think when people turn on network TV these days, they know if there’s a story about abortion, it will be pro-choice. And so a lot of times you just want to surprise the audience with the direction you go. I would say the same thing is true about BrainDead. The Bernie Sanders campaign, which also showed a real extremism on the left, kind of pushed the idea of false equivalency aside. It may not seem as extreme, but you know there is a real call now for there to be a left-wing tea party. And that is more the subject of the show than whether the right wing or left wing is right. It is more the question of extremism that doesn’t see politics as a place for cooperation, and — what’s the word I’m looking for?

MK: Governing?

RK: [Laughs.] Well, that you need to compromise. If you don’t compromise, the system actually kind of falls apart. So all this talk about a political revolution, which might as well come out of mouths on the right as on the left, seems to ignore the point that the system works best when people of good will come to the middle and find ways to compromise their ideals so that there’s a middle ground. That’s how our country avoids revolution — I mean, a real revolution. It’s with a system built on the fact that no one gets 100 percent of what they want, and the problem of the tea party was it wanted 100 percent of what it wants. The people they put into office would only settle for 100 percent of what they want. The reason there was a government shutdown and we almost defaulted on loans two years ago is people would only accept 100 percent of what they want. And that is a problem when it starts growing on the left as much as it’s a problem growing on the right.

I hate to go out and just say that’s what the show’s about. Hopefully people will be entertained by scares and bugs, and things like that. But there really is this axe we’re grinding, hopefully grinding with some entertainment value, on the dysfunction we’re all living through now. My ability as a liberal to point towards the Republicans and say, “It’s all their fucking fault,” is part of what plays into this extremism. Because if I keep doing that or reading Huffington Post, absent anything else, or only watching MSNBC — we all live in our bubbles and we stop talking with each other.

Why did you decide to include sound bites from the presidential campaign in the show, even though the show isn’t, strictly speaking, about real-life political characters?

RK: The show was supposed to be, at first, in kind of some alternate present, but as things started getting quirkier and stranger with Trump’s entrance in the race and Bernie Sanders doing well, it seemed almost stupid not to at least play it against that world because that world is what the world of our show is trying to comment on.

This was announced as a summer series from day one, but this is not a limited series, correct? This is something you would hope to come back every season?

RK: That’s our hope. It all really comes down to CBS, but yes, our hope is to return for more years.

MK: Our thinking is that subsequent seasons would take the same characters, [but] have them in a different setting. So for example, if there’s a season two, we’d be at Wall Street. If there were a season three, it would be Silicon Valley. And season four, if we were to get that far, we’d go to Hollywood.

So will this play out as a slow-wave invasion, with different parts of society falling to our new insect overlords?

RK: Well, what you’ll find is that the first season is self-contained. There is a beginning, middle and end to it, as if it was a movie. And then the second season is called the second wave, and that would be another variation on the attack we saw in the first season. So just like Independence Day now has Independence Day 2, you would see something similar. But we expect, or hope, each year to be a self-contained story. And by the way, that’s the protection in case you only have one year. You want the audience to have a full experience. So we’re doing each year as if it were a movie.

It’s not too much of a spoiler to say that bugs play a pivotal role in BrainDead. Did you have bug consultants for the show?

MK: We did, actually! We were able to get some etymologists on the phone to chat with us about strange and ugly bugs. We also had political consultants. One of the co-executive producers is Judy Smith, who’s the D.C. fixer that Scandal is based on, and she helped put us in touch with David McCallum, who’s the deputy chief of staff for Harry Reid, and he’s been our tech adviser.

Starting with next week’s second episode, you’ll be dispensing with the usual “previously on” recaps. Instead — spoiler alert — the recaps will come in the form of a comedic song. What made you decide to go the extra mile to have the recaps stand out?

MK: Aren’t they fun? First of all, it was Robert’s idea to have them, and to approach Jonathan Coulton to write them. He’s a very witty singer-songwriter.

RK: We’re fans of TV. Whether it’s Game of Thrones, The Americans, or, you know, even Sons of Anarchy, there were always these recaps, which felt like it was your welcome mat to the show, and yet they were not really a) very entertaining, or b) I’ve never found them helpful. Maybe because I have trouble with names, but even if I saw the episode before, I’d look at the recap and go, “What the hell does that mean?” We satirized it a little bit in Good Wife. We had a show called “Darkness at Noon,” and it started with this idea of how there’s a recap of the beginning of our episodes on “Darkness at Noon,” and it was just nonsensical. It just doesn’t make any sense at all. And so we felt it would be clearer [to do a song], because you could just have someone announce what you should remember or what you should know for the series. We knew Jonathan Coulton from a year or two ago, when we had him on The Good Wife, and we asked him. He’s just someone we think is one of the wittiest songwriters writing today.

So I should ask at least one question about The Good Wife.  It’s been a few weeks now since the series ended its fun. You were obviously pretty busy working on the new show, but I’m wondering how you processed the ending, as well as the reaction to it.

MK: Well, you’re exactly right. We were already doing BrainDead. So it was different than it would have been had there been a letdown. There wasn’t. We have many of the same crew on BrainDead as we did on Good Wife. So it wasn’t that same sense of loss one might have experienced if we hadn’t already had another show up and going.

RK: And with regards to the reaction, the reaction was [pauses] … my mom’s. [Laughs.] She wanted a happy ending. And I was sad that — I apologized [to her]. And then we acted out another ending for her at her house. So if there are any disappointed fans, we’ll come to your house — just have them leave their email — and we’ll perform the happier ending of it.

You could go on tour with that.

RK: We will! So yes, there is in our mind, a happier ending of it. Michelle and I can read the lines from it.