Behind BrainDead’s Very Unusual ‘Previously On’ Segments


Robert and Michelle King’s new CBS series BrainDead is silly pretty much 100 percent of the time. From episode titles like “Goring Oxes: How You Can Survive the War on Government Through Five Easy Steps” to an obsession with ear-candy songs like the Cars’ “You Might Think,” the show makes a joke out of something we’ve all wondered at some point: What is going on inside the brains in Washington, D.C.? (In this case, it’s the ant-like aliens eating them).

Since the second episode, BrainDead has struck this tone in its very first minute, thanks to creative jingles that act as the "previously on" segments meant to refresh audiences’ memories. These ditties come courtesy of musician Jonathan Coulton, whose relationship with the Kings goes back to when The Good Wife parlayed his real-life drama with Fox’s Glee into fictional fare. Things are a lot more lighthearted this time around, Coulton explains to Vulture. 

What was the conversation like when you discussed what would go into these previously on's?
When they were still writing the show, Robert had mentioned to me that they wanted to do something interesting for the show, musically, but they weren’t sure exactly what. Once they got into production, he got back in touch. He had this idea, and I’d never heard of such a thing before. It’s strange to take something that has such a utilitarian purpose and make it entertainment. That was an exciting aspect to me. He was pretty open to do this in terms of the style of music.

We did discuss that it could be meta in some ways; a little bit self-aware and not just a dry pass. But also, the singer of the song is also a watcher of the show, and it’s his own reaction to things that are happening. We all agreed that that would be fun to explore. It’s not exactly theme music — I’ve varied it from episode to episode.

One of my favorites is the one that ends with the joke about the cat’s infection.
That one got a lot of response because I think that’s exactly what the viewer’s thinking when you’re watching that episode. I love that joke because it’s a chance for the singer of the song — I’m talking about me actually but I think of that guy as a character who’s watching along with the viewers — to poke his head out from above the line and have a reaction.

Do you have favorites that you’re particularly proud of?
I like that one a lot. I like the sad one after Laurel gets infected. I think it’s the first time the music was completely different. It doesn’t do all that much recapping. It’s kind of like the singer’s too distraught to really recap the episode because he’s so affected. I make a joke that this isn’t supposed to happen to the main character, which is another kind of poking through the fourth wall. It’s almost like the singer for these recaps has a slightly adversarial relationship with the writers, which I find hilarious.

Was that the intent when you were coming up with this idea?
No. It’s just the stuff that comes out of my head when I’m doing this. The great thing about the Kings is that they really let the people who they’re working with bring their contributions to the show, no matter how weird they are. I give them a lot of credit for going out on a limb to do this thing that’s weird and hasn’t been done before, but we think it’s funny so let’s see what happens. Every week I throw whatever crazy idea’s popped out of my head back to Robert and he says, “That’s great. I love it!” It’s a very fun environment to be in when you’re creating something.

Anthony Mendez, who does the previously on segments and other voice-over work for Jane the Virgin, has said that he has a backstory for his character. Have you done the same?
No. I don’t have too much of a backstory. I guess I don’t know too much about this guy except that he’s sitting in a room and is obsessively watching the show. He definitely watches it when it airs and not the next day on some streaming channel. He’s watching the live tweeting of the actors and he’s probably participating a little too much in the social-media conversations about it. That’s the guy I’m thinking about. I don’t know if does anything else besides that.

Do you think he’s a conspiracy theorist?
It could be that he’s a conspiracy theorist and that’s why the show’s speaking to him. He’s got a lot to say, but of course it’s his job to recap these shows so he’s trying to keep it in check.

I was definitely thinking about it in terms of the recappers who write long blog posts about the episodes. That’s the vibe I’m going for: Less a “previously on” guy and more a recapper-blogger, except he’s only got 45 to 60 seconds of song.

This interview has been edited and condensed.