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.