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.