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Review: ‘BrainDead’ Will Have You Laughing, Despite Yourself

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“Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!”

Who doesn’t love Washington politics? The infighting, the committees, the lies, the philandering, the dumb decisions… no, NO, wait, don’t go! I’m leading somewhere here! This current election year has typically made people either very angry, very jaded, or in my case, both. The last thing you might want to devote an hour or so of your time to (45 minutes if you exercise your thumb during the commercials) is a show that highlights everything wrong with Congress and shows little to no redeeming qualities of the politicians. But what if I told you there is a very good reason politicians act the way they do? What if I told you it has nothing to do with lack of morals, greed, or sheer stupidity? What if I said it all has to do with… Space Ants? Huh? No, NO! Come back here! Just… just trust me on this.

The new show BrainDead (Sundays @9PM EST on CBS) examines that very possibility and, despite being listed as a work of fiction, I like to think of it as a documentary where the creators, Robert and Michelle King of The Good Wife, got unprecedented access to members of Congress and the notes from their psychologists. The premise is that intergalactic ants show up on earth thanks to that meteorite that hit Russia a few years back and end up taking over politicians, some of their constituents, and wreaking havoc on Congress. The ants end up on American soil with the unwitting help of a scientist who brings the meteorite back to Washington for study, and, as is the wont of tiny invaders, the bugs escape from their space rock spaceship when a pre-ant government shutdown forces the lab to close, and set out to claim to the world outside the lab. Hilarity ensues.


The ants take over their human hosts by entering through the ears and if you are unlucky they make your head explode after eating away at your brain for a while. If you are “lucky” they just eject parts of your brain they have no use for and set up what I imagine to be a console with levers to make you walk and talk, as well as knobs for emotions that all go up to eleven. If you are a liberal, you become super militant about the environment, the welfare of the people, and the treatment of baby seals. If you are conservative, you’ve had it up to here with big government, wasteful spending, and must arm yourself for the coming “us or them” fight (there is an amusing bit of back and forth, between a staffer and a constituent, about why it would be illegal, and just plain wrong, to have a bomb-making tutorial on a government website).

Into this mess steps Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Laurel, a budding documentary filmmaker forced to work for her brother Luke (Danny Pino), a Democratic Senator, in order to earn some real money for her projects which remain tragically non-funded. She deals with constituent problems each day and is the typical congressional fish out of water with her morals still intact. She eventually teams up with Nikki M. James, who plays Rochelle, the daughter of one of the first victims of the bugs, who doesn’t believe the official cause of her father’s death, and Johnny Ray Gill as Gustav, who loses a friend to the bugs.

Scully… I mean Rochelle, is a scientist, and Gustav is a paranoid nerd, genius, polymath extraordinaire with all the kooky ideas that come with it. Winstead is splendid in this under-written role and adds a refreshing middle view to the skepticism of Rochelle and the readiness to believe of Mulder… I mean Gustav. The three carry the show along with the terrific Tony Shalhoub, as Republican Senator Red Wheatus, a recovering alcoholic, chewing the scenery as the political antagonist who has undergone an artificial epiphany and is now championing conservative causes for which he previously wouldn’t have put down the bottle.

Brain Dead's leading lady Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Laurel.
BrainDead’s leading lady Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Laurel.

Together our threesome must find the threat, understand it, and try to get others to believe it’s a threat at all without looking crazy. The ants meanwhile have taken over some key people who can turn the system against our heroes if they do find someone to champion their cause, and are not going to let their ant plans get ruined. What is that plan? It gets slowly revealed as the series goes on and keeps you interested in finding out just how our intrepid threesome will stop potentially thousands of tiny invaders.

The pacing is just right, the balance between quirky thriller, scary movie, and political satire is almost perfect (though sometimes it seems unsure of what it wants to be), and the cast does wonders with a script that doesn’t give a lot of them much depth but does give them a strong purpose. The women are strong, the heroes are minority, and the black guy doesn’t die in the first few episodes.

BrainDead is like some kind of episodic pizza, a kind of  A/V comfort food, or comfort TV if you will, and just like pizza, when it’s bad (and it rarely ever is) it’s still pretty good. Watch it to give yourself a break from the drama that has you following a couple’s argument over twelve episodes, only to find out that if the guy had just closed the window that one night when she felt cold they wouldn’t have bought that new house, and she wouldn’t have gotten pregnant when his vasectomy didn’t take, and now little Johnny has some rare bone disease that will force Valerie Hamilton-Myers to stay home with him right as she was about to make partner. It doesn’t take itself seriously, keeps things light, but has an ingredient that keeps you wanting more and more.

BrainDead could insultingly be called just the latest zombie show but rises above that with good characters and an unexpected take to the aliens-taking-over-our-bodies trope. The premise explains the craziness of American politics in an unfortunately believable way. I’m addicted, and it’s a habit I hope goes on for at least three seasons. Watch it. I guarantee that if the ants haven’t already taken over your brain, you’ll be hooked. If not, well, here’s hoping your head doesn’t explode.

P.S.: My wife insists I mention the awesome, campy, funny recap songs at the beginning of each episode used in lieu of the standard “Last time on…”

*All images copyright CBS Broadcasting.

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