After years of examining the intersection of law, politics and media with tongue firmly in cheek on CBS’ “The Good Wife,” creators Robert and Michelle King have turned their satirical lens on Washington, D.C. itself for “BrainDead,” a political horror-comedy that somehow manages to be far less horrifying than the current political climate. While the show goes to extremes to explore the dangers of extremism, Michelle King admits that the hardest part of writing the show is “to make things seem as crazy as they do in reality.” The series stars Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Danny Pino, Aaron Tveit, Tony Shalhoub, Nikki M. James and Johnny Ray Gill.
The Kings spoke to Variety about how “BrainDead” came about, their thoughts on politics in America today, and whether we’ll see many familiar faces from “The Good Wife” making an appearance.
You’ve been exploring the absurdity of politics and the media for years with “The Good Wife,” so what was the genesis of “BrainDead” specifically?
Robert King: The idea came from the government shutdown about two, two and a half years ago, when we were noticing just how crazy people in DC had gotten. The government almost defaulted on its loans, and it seemed to be out of emotional pique, or something. Analyses of it seemed to be that there was this lack of a spirit of compromise, and it was about extremists, and that made us think about the best genre to explore the idea of extremism in politics. Because we’re sci-fi and horror fans, that took us to “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”
How do you feel about where we are in the current political landscape? In some ways, the show has perfect timing, but it also feels like it was a safe bet that things would escalate to the point we’re at now.
Michelle King: We had no idea that this is where we would land when we first came up with the idea, in terms of where we are now with the presidential [race]. At this point it just feels like our job is hard to make things seem as crazy as they do in reality.
Robert King: I think what has changed and then made things even more interesting in the last two years is the extremism most of us react to on the right – the Tea Party and – seems to be finding a similar rise on the left in Bernie Bros. There’s even talk about a political revolution of why does the Republican side have their Tea Party but the Democratic side does not? We wanted to be even-handed about how extremism is not occupied by one side or the other, but is more almost like an infection – as soon as one group of people go into government and say “we will only settle for a hundred percent of our needs,” it provokes the other side to do the same.
It seems kind of telling that Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s character, Laurel, is from outside the world of politics – what makes her the right hero for this tale?
Michelle King: We wanted somebody to be the audience’s eyes, someone who needed to learn a bit, even though she wasn’t completely naïve about politics.
Robert King: We also liked the idea of how someone returns to their hometown, and the people in the hometown seem to have changed, and you’re never sure if it’s about the fact that you’ve been away and you’ve changed, so you’re reacting to them differently, or if they’ve changed. I think Laurel’s in that slightly paranoid place of trying to figure out “who’s the problem here?”
What was the key to striking the right tone, since this is so much more comedic than “The Good Wife”?
Robert King: We started with the idea of satisfying the needs of the genre; obviously, the topic we’re talking about could get kind of earnest and a little full of itself, so it seemed better to be entertaining. If you’re gonna give people genre, give it to them to the fullest. Same thing with “Good Wife” – if you’re giving them procedural, it better have some pretty good twists and turns in it, or people start feeling like “why am I watching this?” We wanted the same thing with “BrainDead.” On the other hand, we enjoy very real characters who have real reactions, and so once we got Mary Elizabeth Winstead in, obviously it was very clear that we needed to live in the world of both dramatic comedy and dramatics — treating these characters as real people, and that is probably the more “Good Wife” side of things.
You have a couple of “Good Wife” alums in the show– how did you approach the casting process? I assume you didn’t want to make it a non-stop parade of familiar faces that might take viewers out of the narrative?
Michelle King: That’s exactly right – plus they are different kinds of roles. We were so fortunate to get Mary Elizabeth Winstead in the center of it; she’s just fantastic, she does have that girl next door quality but she’s also able to sell jokes.
Robert King: I do think it was similar to the process on “Good Wife.” Mark Saks was the casting director for both, and you’re really collaborative with the studio and the network; CBS had a good deal of opinions on things – they’re always looking for people who can deliver both sides of the genre. And we loved working with some of the “Good Wife” people, and also some other actors who we’re having back now over the course of the series – Margo Martindale is coming back … Some people that we really enjoyed working with and tried to get back.
How did you come up with the design for the creatures preying on the brains of Washington’s elite?
Robert King: The first instinct was always the instinct we went with – scarier than big monsters to us is going down to the kitchen at midnight to get a snack, turning on the light and seeing a line of ants anywhere, that’s creepier and scarier to us because that’s something you don’t usually see in reality. There was this real feeling to domesticate the horror, to make it something you could come upon in your day to day. I can’t tell you how many horrible pictures we’ve seen of real bugs crawling into people’s real ears – that’s just a terrifying thought. So we try not to have it being a gross-out, some of it’s meant to look comic and hyper-real, but we did want the line of bugs to be, in theory, in plain sight. These are not monsters that have to be hid, they’re monsters that are as tiny as ants and that’s why people don’t think twice about it when they see them.
What are you hoping people will take away from the show, given the intensity of the current political climate?
Michelle King: I would hope that they would be amused, and also recognize the political satire of how difficult it is to get anything done when everyone becomes more extreme and lives in their own extreme bubbles.
Robert King: If they would follow the lead of the two characters, Laurel and Garrett (Tveit), who are as different as two people could be and find that they really like talking to each other. I think we’re all living in our little bubbles and not talking to people who have different opinions. It’s like what some of “The Good Wife” was about – not a lot of it, but some of it – people are living in their political bubbles, which is making everyone a little more intensely partisan.
“BrainDead” premieres Monday, June 13 at 10 p.m. on CBS.