With less than three weeks until the inauguration of Donald Trump as the U.S. president, the sci-fi satire BrainDead now seems more timely than it did during its original airing on CBS this past summer. The show's Twilight Zone-ish takedown of bipartisan extremism in American politics effectively dramatized the harmful effects of "ideological bubbles" months before they became the favored fodder of post-election thinkpieces.
The show has an excellent pedigree, too, coming from The Good Wife creators Robert and Michelle King, and it shares that earlier show's penchant for snappy dialogue and excellent casting. BrainDead's first and only season thankfully works as its own stand-alone story, although it must be said that it's a touch flabby at 13 episodes. The season probably would have benefited from being a more focused 8-episode "limited series," like the kids enjoy so much on cable these days.
Even though its narrative meanders more than it should, BrainDead must be praised for presenting the sharp and appealing Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, 10 Cloverfield Lane) at her sharpest and most appealing. Winstead plays Laurel Healy, an idealistic documentary filmmaker who actively avoids the lifestyle of her politician family. After funding falls through on Laurel's latest project, she is convinced by her father (Zach Grenier) to work in the office of her Democratic senator brother, Luke (Danny Pino). Despite her distaste, Laurel has a knack for the navigating the political byways of Washington, D.C. She's not always perfect at it -- like when she is duped by a Republican senator's cute staffer into feeding her brother false information -- but she's a quick learner.
If D.C. weren't tricky enough, then comes the horde of brain-eating alien bugs to really make things difficult. Yes, that's right, at the heart of this political dramedy is the high-concept premise that bugs from outer space have come to Earth and are eating the brains of American politicians. The bugs make the pols unable to think rationally or come to compromises. Tony Shalhoub is delightfully hammy as Republican senator Red Wheatus, a fun-loving good ol' boy who becomes a hard-line moralist once the bugs push a significant of his grey matter out of his ear (in one of the show's many gleeful gross-outs), to take up residence inside. In the spirit of evenhandedness, Jan Maxwell plays a moderate Democratic senator who becomes a cartoonishly impractical progressive once the bugs do their number on her. The obvious payoff here is that the two fiery politicians with wildly different agendas are actually working together, to divide and conquer the human race and to pave the way for an alien takeover.
Unfortunately, humans who gets bugs in their heads are not always so lucky as to merely become extremist puppets. Those who fight too vigorously against the bugs can suffer spontaneous head explosions (cue more gleeful splatters of blood and chunks of brain). Rochelle (Nikki M. James) and Gustav (Johnny Ray Gill) have both had someone close to them die from these sudden head pops and are both suspicious of the official government story about what is going on. They team up with Laurel, who witnessed (and got splattered during) the first of these CHIs (Catastrophic Head Injuries), to investigate these strange occurrences and uncover the truth.
You can't make an hourlong TV drama without a romantic subplot, so BrainDead reaches across the aisle to set the sparks flying between lefty Laurel and Red Wheatus's Reagan-loving chief-of-staff Gareth Ritter (Aaron Tveit). Sure, they have fundamentally different points of view, but ideology isn't enough to keep two people apart when they are as cute as these two, so the show complicates their courtship by throwing in Charlie Semine as a hunky FBI agent who likes Laurel but might not be as upstanding as he initially seems.
BrainDead does a solid job of balancing its satirical, procedural, and soapy aspects. Where it falters, maybe not surprisingly, is in keeping its sci-fi elements coherent and consistent.
Early episodes excel in creating Invasion of the Body Snatchers-style paranoia, as it looks like any of our likable featured characters might unwittingly succumb to a brain takeover. As a signifier, the earworm-y new wave pop hit "You Might Think" by The Cars becomes the only song that the aliens choose to listen to, and the song's chiming synthesizer riff becomes suitably eerie as more characters begin mindlessly enjoying the tune.
But, at a certain point, the show loses track of (or loses interest in) its spooky squads of ant-like invaders as a threat to our main characters. Once a main character thwarts a brain infestation, they're pretty much good for the rest of the series, despite seemingly taking no further precautions to avoid literally losing their minds. Also, certain "infected" characters seem to be explicit bug avatars while others, for unexplained reasons, still act as if they are essentially the same people, just more irrational and oblivious to their own behavioral change.
Despite these inconsistencies, BrainDead is so well-stocked with talented actors, delivering first-rate performances, that it's hard not to enjoy the show overall. In addition to the featured ensemble, there are memorable short stints by Kurt Fuller, as an unsettlingly sunny FBI torture expert, by Margo Martindale, as a fussy bug expert, by Brooke Adams, as a principled senator, by Michael Gaston, as an independent-thinking special prosecutor, and by Patrick Breen, as a prickly legal-ese expert. Offbeat troubadour Jonathan Coulton provides tongue-in-cheek "previously on" recap songs at the beginning of most episodes, although one time he claims to be too stressed out by the story, and recaps an episode of Gunsmoke instead.
The 13 episodes of BrainDead are presented on 4 DVDs, packaged in a standard-sized keepcase on two back-to-back hubs. Deleted scenes are accessible in the episode menus, while the remaining bonus features are all included on Disc 4.
The widescreen 1.78:1 presentation is about what you'd expect for a brand-new show on DVD. Accurate-looking colors, with a mostly sedate and beige-y color palette. Decent detail reproduction for standard definition. There are issues with noisy compression during busy wide shots or complicated moving shots, but it's a solid encode overall.
The disc offers both Dolby 5.1 surround and Dolby 2.0 stereo mixes. There's not an intense difference between the two, although there are some effectively creepy ambient effects utilized at different moments in the surround mix. The disc also offers one subtitle option: English SDH.
Special Features: Trickle-Down Invasion: The Story of BrainDead (9:53) - Creators Robert & Michelle King and producer David W. Zucker discuss their approach to realizing their satirical premise.
(15:16 total) - These are mostly negligible trims, although there is a nice extra moment with Kurt Fuller's torturer, a touching wrap-up to the relationship with Laurel's dad, and one character who got completely cut out: an infected superintendent in Laurel's building.
Strange Bedfellows: The Characters of BrainDead (12:23) - The producers and actors talk about the characters. A little bland, in the standard EPK mode.
The Third Party: The Politics of BrainDead (9:40) - The producers talk about how they attempted to reflect the absurdity of the 2016 presidential campaign in the show, before Robert King lays out briefly what the second through fourth seasons would have been had the show not gotten cancelled. (Sadly, he doesn't know yet that the show is cancelled during the interview.)
Gag Reel (1:42) - A typical batch of flubs, corpsing, and (bleeped) cursing.
It is sad that there will be no more seasons of BrainDead, because it offers such an excellent showcase for Mary Elizabeth Winstead and she is so excellent in the show. The rest of the cast are no slouches either, and they consistently improve upon and distract from the inconsistencies in the show's plotting. Certain episodes are much more satisfying than others, but overall this short-run series comes Highly Recommended.
Justin Remer is a filmmaker, oddball musician, and frequent wearer of beards. His new single, "My Rival (The Same One That Steely Dan Has)," is now available to stream or download on Amazon, Apple, Spotify, and wherever else fine music is enjoyed.