June 21, 2016

BrainDead: "The Insanity Principle"

I thoroughly appreciated the perfectly unsettling finale of The Good Wife, so I was ready for another series by Robert and Michelle King. The duo is back with a summer series that moves their brand of dark political wit from Chicago to Washington.

BrainDead is a political... no, wait, science fiction! No, actually, it's a thriller? A comedy? Ok, I'm not sure what it is. My dad described it as "a cross between The West Wing and The X-Files." Whatever it is, it's up my alley. And it's also relevant, or at least it's striving to be. Interspersed throughout the pilot episode, "The Insanity Principle," are clips from Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, and the latter in particular serves to illustrate the intractable mess that is the current American political system.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead, pictured in a promo photo, in front of the American Flag, double fisting aerosol bug spray.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead
Source: cbs.com
BrainDead attempts to make sense of political madness by blaming it on... extraterrestrial insects.

Populating this bizarre tale are television veterans (Tony Shalhoub) as well as veterans of The Good Wife (Megan Hilty, Zach Grenier). Star-on-the-rise Mary Elizabeth Winstead (who is stellar as well as versatile) is Laurel Healy, a relative outsider to DC. Literally relative, as Laurel has agreed to a six-month job in the office of her brother, Sen. Luke Healy (D) (Danny Pino). Here, she is not surprised by the dirty underbelly of politics, a world she says she hates, but she also seems to be the only one who notices that things are a little off-kilter. "The Insanity Principle" has Laurel navigating her new job as constituent caseworker in the midst of a government shutdown. What begins as an effort to help a constituent becomes Laurel's personal "investigation" into the shipping container which brought the alien ants to US shores to begin with. She doesn't know that yet. Just how long it will take for Laurel to figure this mess out remains to be seen. I'll give her six months.

At least in the first episode, the politics of the show are not partisan. The madness, and the bugs, infect both sides of the aisle. In fact, if there's a second protagonist, it's Republican congressional aide Gareth Ritter (Aaron Tveit). So what's next? By virtue of her position as heroine, Laurel will have to remain uninfected, or somehow immune, to the brain eating bugs. I expect we'll see Laurel and Gareth explore this mystery together. The two have been specifically (if a bit obviously) positioned as the only characters with a conscience.

To watch this show not only do you have to get past bugs crawling into ears and brains falling out of ears and heads exploding, you also have to be able to stomach politics. That is difficult to do in this age in which, to quote one of BrainDead's fictional pundits, "Bipartisanship is dead."If you can bear all that, you might be in for a fun summer ride. The acting surrounding Winstead's well-played sanity is delightfully absurd. The tone and color, uniquely muddy.

"But what is a Democrat, these days? What is a Republican? A brand." That's how Shalhoub's character, Sen. Red Wheatus (R), describes Congressional gridlock. So, ants from outer space? Surely as good an explanation as any.

You can watch BrainDead on Monday nights on CBS, or Fridays on Amazon.

*Update: Beginning July 24, BrainDead will air on Sunday nights.

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