There’s a paradox at play in the fictional American politics of nonfictional American television: A show must be, to get the kinds of audiences it requires to stay on the air, inclusive. It must not alienate. It must not offend. It must revel in politics, yes, but it must do that while avoiding political partisanship. Most recent shows (Madam Secretary, Parks and Recreation, House of Cards, Veep) have done a delicate dance around that tension, downplaying party politics, and their deep penetration of American political life, in favor of broader portrayals of politics’ mechanisms and machinations. If they don’t do that—if they choose instead to revel in their own partisanship, in the (in)famous manner of The West Wing, they risk alienating as many viewers as they attract. The result of all that is, on top of everything else, a series of televised takes on American politics that are not just fictionalized, but also sanitized.
BrainDead is the exception that ends up proving the rule. The show, whose first episode premiered on CBS on Monday night, refers to itself, in its promotional literature, as “a comic-thriller set in the world of Washington, D.C. politics.” It is more specifically, however, attempting to be a sci-fi-laced satire of the American political system writ large, and of all the bodies—Congress, Congressional staffers, constituents, the media—that circle, complacently, in its orbit.
The premise is this: Laurel Healy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a young documentary filmmaker from a political family, gets bribed into doing a six-month stint working for her brother, a Democratic senator from Maryland, in the Capitol. Laurel hates politics, resenting its niceties and superficialities; she also, as soon becomes clear, has a knack for the family trade. Will she end up making deals, in spite of herself? Will she flirt with a cute aide to a Republican senator? Will she be forced to walk the sometimes extremely thin line that divides partisanship and idealism? Yes. And yes. And yes.
But that’s the House of Cards-y/Scandal-y/Veep-y side of BrainDead. The other side, the much more compelling side, is this: During Laurel’s first week on the job—as the threat of a partisanship-rooted government shutdown looms—space bugs attack earth (and, specifically, Washington, D.C.). The creepy-crawlies look like very large ants, and they tend to attack, through ducts and open windows, in CGI-tastic waves. And, hold on to your metaphor, they do their work primarily, it seems, by … infiltrating people’s brains. (Hence, the show’s title; hence, as well, the many, many jokes, in the show’s first episode alone, about “people losing their minds.”)
Infection by the space-ants will either 1) cause people’s brains to explode (this is graphically depicted, blood and ooze and all), or 2) allow people to live as they have, only overcome by a form of extremism. So, in BrainDead’s first episode, one victim of the number-two strain of ant-infestation, the Republican senator Red Wheatus (Tony Shalhoub), stops boozing and becomes more Freedom Caucus-y in his political orientation. Another, a feisty woman who is one of Senator Healy’s constituents, manifests her infection by becoming downright Stepfordian.
The mechanics of the bug-to-brain infiltration are left exceedingly unclear (there’s a long scene depicting Senator Wheatus’s brain popping out, intact, through his ear—at which point it explodes). Then again, they don’t necessarily have to be. BrainDead is a show that, as its title and definitely as its ants-in-our-pants premise might suggest, is equal parts pessimistic and whimsical; if you’re a writer, the nice thing about working on a show like that—sci-fi, bugs, the spontaneous combustion of gray matter—is that it frees you of the immediate need for realism or a semblance thereof. That could seem to be a good thing: BrainDead, as its advertising has gone out of its way to emphasize, is brought to you by the dream team—Michelle and Robert King, and the producer Ridley Scott—who fostered a quiet revolution at CBS through The Good Wife, the show that brought the prestige of cable to network drama.
And BrainDead, to its credit, takes the very thing that made The Good Wife a small weekly miracle—the speed of production, which allowed the full urgency of a “ripped from the headlines” posture to be realized—and doubles down. Last night’s episode began with a montage of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. (It also blamed the invasion of the space bugs on that meteor that fell in Russia in 2013. And the plots of its early episodes borrow heavily from the real-world government shutdowns of … 2013 and 2015.) The show took a broad approach to its headline-ripping premise: It took all of those media condemnations of “the do-nothing Congress,” and all those polls measuring people’s dissatisfactions with their government, and a general cultural atmosphere that takes the frustrations and failures of American democracy for granted … and made a show of it.
The problem with that, though, is that BrainDead never, in its execution, gives the impression that it truly groks the political system it mocks. It serves up all the stuff you’d expect of political satire—the betrayals, the dramas, the jokes at the expense of overeager staffers—but never blends them deftly enough to suggest the deep knowledge that is required to make satire truly scathing. BrainDead may have gleaned much of its comedy through the borrowing of real-world events; last night’s episode, though, also borrowed heavily, almost ridiculously heavily, from the fanciful fictions of The West Wing. (Laurel, on her first day as her brother’s aide, engages in a constituent-management event that is essentially a Senate-based version of the Bartlet White House’s Big Block of Cheese Day. And remember the West Wing episode that found a Republican senator being willing to vote with the other side in exchange for a $47 million earmark for autism research—because his granddaughter was autistic? In BrainDead, it’s a sister who is autistic, and the proposed earmark is … $48 million.)
It’s a fine line, paying tribute to a former show—or perhaps, mocking it—and being simply derivative of it. In this case, it’s hard to tell which is which. BrainDead’s wild tonal shifts—exploding brains one moment, monologues on political idealism the next—never coalesce into the ideological assurance of The West Wing or of the many other shows that inform its plots and its messages. (Even Invasion of the Body Snatchers, a work that also seems to have inspired BrainDead, channeled contemporary anxieties about communism and the individual sacrifices that come with collective governance.) BrainDead, instead, is aggressively apolitical. It avoids political alienation by way of, you know, actual aliens. It navigates the paradox of partisan TV by mocking partisanship itself.
It also lacks any obvious sense of conviction about the world. In trying to mock a system that already quite effectively mocks itself, it doesn’t seem to know where to go. There’s a certain nihilism to the whole enterprise. BrainDead seems to pride itself, as The Good Wife deservedly did, in its proximity to the real world—to headlines, to events, to life as lived by its many, many viewers. It’s about Congress and the presidency and the media. It co-stars Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton and a faux Rachel Maddow and a faux Megyn Kelly. These would seem to be ripe targets of satire. And yet, without convictions to bolster it—without a coherent vision of what would be a better alternative to Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton or Rachel Maddow or Megyn Kelly—everyone gets mocked, equally. Everyone gets accused, in some way, of possessing a deadened brain. BrainDead’s posture is one of equal-opportunity pessimism: Politicians are the worst! Government is awful! Lolnothingmatters!
What that amounts to is not only a “comic-thriller” that is only occasionally comedic, and even less occasionally thrilling; it also amounts to a political satire that, in indicting everyone, ends up indicting no one. The ultimate targets of the jokes here are “partisans,” but if that’s the case then American democracy has another joke in store: It’s the partisans who tend to be heard, and who tend to have influence, and who tend to determine what “American democracy” is going to become. BrainDead may pride itself on its ripped-from-the-headlines relevance; the problem, though, is that the headlines of the moment—about Trump, about terrorism, about inequality, about what America is and will be in the future—reveal nothing if not how destructive political pessimism can be. The democratic system the Kings are satirizing will be, during BrainDead’s 13-episode run, engaged in a fight for its own future; with stakes this high, sometimes the best thing one can be is political and passionate and, yes, partisan.