TV Review: ‘BrainDead’

TV Review: In 'BrainDead,' 'Good Wife'
Courtesy of CBS

Mary Elizabeth Winstead starring as the morally conflicted heroine of a political drama cooked up by Robert and Michelle King — the creators of “The Good Wife” — sounds like a recipe for success. Even more tantalizing is the idea that the Kings’ summer series, “BrainDead,” explicitly takes on the idea of ideological extremism in a story that combines elements of zombie sagas and alien-invasion tales. Could otherworldly bugs be responsible for the current state of crisis in the nation’s capital? It’s as good an explanation as any, and a better concept than the one driving many other scripted summer offerings. 

So “BrainDead” is more sprightly and appealing than “Zoo” and certainly easier to follow than whatever “Under the Dome” ended up being. But “BrainDead” is highly evasive and unsatisfying on the political front, and its feints at deeper truths are not quite enough to make up for the fact that its world-building (which involves a lot of brain destruction) progresses with the herky-jerky, shambling pace of a newly created member of Club Undead.

Of course, it is a great relief to write the words “semi-apocalyptic scenario” and “amiable” in the same sentence. “BrainDead” aims for a tone of light, zippy farce, and if there’s one thing TV could use more of, it’s light, zippy farces. It could also use more sci-fi allegories about abuses of power and the co-opting of democracy for dark and craven ends. Zombie dramas and alien invasion stories often explore the idea that citizens feel that they’ve lost control of their world and that society is heading down the wrong path; to explore those ideas in a semi-serious satire sounds like an excellent idea.

But “BrainDead” doesn’t lack braiiins, exactly — it lacks a spine. The frustrating thing about this comedic drama is that it takes a breezy “a pox on both their houses” approach to telling its story, which follows a Democratic staffer who frequently tangles with Republican senators and aides. Regardless of where you stand on the political spectrum, “BrainDead” takes no position at all regarding who’s right and wrong about anything. It views Washington — which its characters continually call “this town” — with a mildly a condescending aura of bemused cynicism, and that unwillingness to take any positions at all leaves the story and the characters feeling hollow, malleable and more than a little disposable.

The only real stance the show takes is that, in “this town” or any other, it’s gross to watch someone’s head explode after it’s been taken over by creepy bugs. That’s a bipartisan position that is hard to argue with.

All on her own, Winstead is almost enough of a reason to watch: She has a face and a presence the camera loves, and she’s able to inject pathos and intelligence to her rather thinly written character, a broke documentary filmmaker who reluctantly takes a job working for her senator brother. The only supporting character to leave a substantial impression is Tony Shalhoub, who has a lot of fun playing a hambone senator who undergoes a bit of a transformation. But it’s those very transformations that deprive “BrainDead” much of its potential material: Without getting too specific, the show seems so calculated to avoid causing offense that it’s unclear whether the show has any point of view whatsoever on politics, aside from, “Hey, Washington is a mess, am I right?”

That is a pat cliche that people say in bars and at barbecues. As the basis for an ongoing television series, it’s not much to go on.

This paragraph is a bit spoilery, so if you plan to watch “BrainDead,” you might want to skip it. The bug-driven transformations on the show — which aren’t depicted in the first three episodes with the kind of visual economy that would make them more enjoyable — consist of people becoming more extreme in their beliefs, becoming devotees of healthy juices, and starting to avoid alcohol. That’s it. There’s not much of a difference between “person controlled by a possibly dangerous alien entity” and “neighbor who just came back from a yoga retreat.”

There’s no metaphor beyond the idea that people who are extreme — about juices or budgets or anything else — can be taxing to talk to. Well, sure. But it’s hard not to expect more depth, insight and originality from the writers of classic (and savagely pointed) episodes like “Red Team, Blue Team” and “The Decision Tree.” 

There are many ambiguities baked into the life of a lawyer whose clients were usually entertainingly dodgy private citizens or businesspeople with understandable grievances. The personal was the political on “The Good Wife,” and it was often in straight-up election storylines that the show stumbled and lost its bearings. “BrainDead” could be so much fun — and it has its moments here and there — but it ultimately wants to be all things to all people while “skewering” politics, which leaves it feeling not just light but toothless. It also just doesn’t have a consistently strong grasp on how best to employ sci-fi metaphors. 

“BrainDead’s” view of the political scene feels strangely dated, in fact, as if it were an artifact from the “Crossfire” era; characters express nostalgia for an earlier time in which Democratic and Republican senators got drunk together more often. There are a lot of scenes of talking heads arguing on cable-news shows, and though there are references to Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, these are just bits of local color of a portrait of Washington, DC, that feels strangely bland and incomplete.

Ultimately, for a show with a lot of zombie flavoring, “BrainDead” too often lacks bite.

TV Review: 'BrainDead'

(Series; CBS, Mon. June 13, 10 p.m.)

Production

Filmed in New York by Scott Free Productions, King Size Productions and CBS Television Studios.  

Crew

Executive producers, Robert King, Michelle King, Ridley Scott, David W. Zucker, Brooke Kennedy, Liz Glotzer; writers, Robert King, Michelle King. 60 MIN. 

Cast

Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Danny Pino, Aaron Tveit, Tony Shalhoub, Nikki M. James, Johnny Ray Gill, Jan Maxwell, Charlie Semine

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  1. David Austin says:

    It doesn’t lack spine … it lacks cliche’. Maureen, like so many reviewers, love cliche’. It’s simple, and you don’t always have to wonder if the writers are selling you something on the sly, because its so braindead obvious. If you don’t like braindead because it doesn’t have a political bent … guess who the braindead one is? You.

  2. John says:

    The worst show I have ever watched. Love Pino but he could be doing big movies not this dumb garbage. Wow how can anyone sit through this. I can’t stand MONK. God is he annoying

  3. jd prague says:

    Unlike normal Hollywood fare, I think this shows only leads marginally to the left. A lot of negative comments, sounds like people are trying to take this serious. It is mostly comedy folks, laugh a little.

  4. Marsha Ras says:

    I adored “Good Wife” watched it for simply years. It was, for me, time for another interest. “Brain Dead” is, parden the pun, a mindless TV watch for me…I enjoy the show and have found it difficult to watch, at times, in the same realm. I like it with the confusion, crawly bugs and personal angst of the charters. I usually don’t care for SciFi or scarey shows but the ‘ole nurse in me enjoys the whole thing! I ususaly end up with a good belly laugh that brings my husband out to check on me. Call me crazy…

  5. Zoe says:

    I LOVE this show! Great cast…Danny Pino is just the right amount sexy, ambitious..I love the brother/sister relationship between his character and Laurel, enjoy Laurel’s romantic “adventures”, Tony Shalhob is hilarious, Gustav (Johnny Ray Gill) as the “civilian” who is one step ahead is so fun…

    This is the kind of show that you have to give a chance. I don’t remember how many episodes but it wasn’t long before I was completely hooked and incredibly impressed, at times laughing out loud. And I DO care about the characters!

    The combination of political satire and comedy with a touch of realism toward dating, friendship and family, little snippets of romance…not to mention the retro synopsis that completely catches you up to date with a song is brilliant and seamless.

    Yes, there’s the occasional exploding head and brain oozing out of someone’s ear, lol, but I’m quick enough away just in the nick of time like I do with The Walking Dead! And there’s not 1/10th the amount of gore non this show.

    Recommend highly! Stick with it…jeez, there’s a lotta “antsy” people who seem to be bugged by this show! ;/

  6. Drew Rickett says:

    This review is perplexing. As passionately as both sides of the audience take their politics, Mo wants the show to “pick a side” and alienate the party the writers would hypothetically make the antagonists and dump half of their ratings in the process? From what’s gone on through episode 3 they’re taking aim at both parties to much comedic effect.

    The premise of the show has promise, and by using ::SPOILER::

    crazy E.T. ants with bad taste in 80’s music as the device to explain the irrationality of American governance/politics to the viewer is campy fun and take no prisoners, engaging the full scope of the potential audience if they can accept the comedic bent of the series so far.

    If you’re fed up with the dysfunction of American Congressional politics and want a wacky, funny, lighthearted, sci-fi take on the cause of said dysfunction this show is worth a watch.

    P.S.: by not taking a side in an election year and playing both sides of the field equally crazy it sets the writers up to use the election results as script fuel for the next 4 seasons.

  7. Amanda Spake says:

    You are too kind to “Brain Dead.” I watched it because I adored “The Good Wife.” But I will certainly not watch any more of it. It’s pointlessly creepy and the “comedy” of this supposed farce is lost in the Sci Fi Meets Washington unreality of the premise.”Jane the Virgin” is a comedy and a parody of a mystery/thriller. “Brain Dead” is just terrible TV.

    • laineypc says:

      It doesn’t make sense for the show to be partisan when that is the very object of its satire: it is skewering extreme partisanship, as well as making the partisans themselves look like people who don’t know how to enjoy life and don’t want to. Because they think too much.

      • David Austin says:

        I couldn’t agree more. I think those who hate it must see themselves in the people it mocks. I’m sure none of them enjoy political satire on both sides of the aisle … only the aisle with which they’re associated.

  8. Bob says:

    Great cast.
    Weird show.
    Sort of “The West Wing” meets “The X Files.”
    It didn’t grab me the way “The Good Wife” did.

  9. Darleen Slay says:

    The King’s stopped writing The Good Wife for this junk. We will not be watching Brain Dead again. The Good Wife was a great show – a show we always looked forward to watching. Brain Dead is correctly named and not funny.

  10. Linda Housley says:

    Discusting show. I won’t watch it. I deleted ALL of my ‘records’ of this show. YUCK@!#@@$@

  11. By moderated, will you only include the mirrored cynical that has to mean negative? I loved it, and can imagine once the pilot revealed the premise and gets the story line in motion, we will have both sides behaving badly. For those of us polarized and firm in our red meat politics, we may overlook this hybrid series’ deft humor and easy repartee as natural conversation. The cast is uniformly brilliant.

    Reviewers tend view product as what they wished had been shown. Rather than be open for what’s delivered, or where the show can and probably will grow. It’s a matter of attitude. This is not the first review of yours where we’ve -respectfully- disagreed.

  12. Annette says:

    I think the show is stupid will not take the time to watch it again and for this you take off the Good Wife what a shame

  13. Eric says:

    1) 80% of the people on this planet have a 110 or less IQ.

    2) YOU are most likely one of them.

    3) That doesn’t mean that you have to fall for the bullshit this show
    is promoting.

    Think for yourself.

    Google what companies donate to the democratic and republican parties.
    Realize that the same companies donate to both, simultaneously and
    consistently.

    Google Voluntaryism…

  14. Nancy says:

    This show is PURE TRASH! Not funny at all. I can’t believe the same people to did Good Wife, would drop that show to put out a piece of crap like this one.

  15. Chef Robert says:

    It just wasn’t interesting. I thought Mary Elizabeth Winstead was bland in the role, and her character was annoying.

  16. Michael SF says:

    There should have been a warning at the beginning of the episode:

    “Don’t be eating Jell-O or a strawberry sundae whiling watching our show…”

    At the minimum those responsible for the show should send me a check for the cost of my RUINED sundae and my GF’s barfed-on Jell-O when watching Tony’s brain-expelling scene.

  17. Jim says:

    Interesting that you disliked the fact that they played both sides somewhat equally. I suspect you were hoping for a total nuke job on republicans (you know, the usual for Hollywood). As a republican, I found the show unique and intriguing.

    • laineypc says:

      I am a Democrat and I agree the author completely missed the point of what the writers are trying to do by being “neutral”. (And it does skew to Democrats as the protagonist Laurel is one). The main message of the allegory is that there are SOME people (uptight people who can’t let loose with a drink, who are grossed out by sex, and must have their kale smoothies nearby at all times as a security blanket) who are making partisanship their life’s mission. Being right and holy has replaced getting to “yes” in politics on both sides. If the show took sides then that would be unintentionally ironic and not in a good way.

  18. ctrent29 says:

    Regardless of where you stand on the political spectrum, “BrainDead” takes no position at all regarding who’s right and wrong about anything. It views Washington — which its characters continually call “this town” — with a mildly a condescending aura of bemused cynicism, and that unwillingness to take any positions at all leaves the story and the characters feeling hollow, malleable and more than a little disposable.

    The series’ portrayal of Washington D.C. is very close to the truth with its apathetic look at both the Democrats and the Republicans. The problem is that YOU do not want to face this truth.

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