Aliens Attack And Congress Goes Extreme In CBS' Political Satire 'BrainDead'

Jun 13, 2016
Originally published on June 13, 2016 3:46 pm

Remember that meteorite that smashed into Russia a few years ago, with enough people filming it as it came to Earth to cause a brief Internet sensation?

Robert and Michelle King certainly do. The creators of The Good Wife use some of those images in the opening moments of their new CBS series, BrainDead, to set up a bizarre but very enjoyable hypothetical scenario.

Here's the weird what-if: What if a meteorite like that one is recovered by Russians and forwarded to the United States for further study and eventual display in the Smithsonian? And what if that happens right at the start of a government shutdown, allowing the outer-space rock to burst open undetected, spilling out a veritable army of ant-like space bugs? And what if those bugs have the power, and the inclination, to creep around inside the Beltway and into the ears of politicians and their staffers, eating and mutating their brains? And what if those brain mutations result in politicians who are partisan in the extreme — and extreme in the extreme?

All this fantasy plays out against the real current presidential campaign — with actual speeches by actual candidates playing in the background on the TV cable news shows everyone is watching. It's part Invasion of the Body Snatchers, mixed with the playful comic edge of Mars Attacks! — but also with the political insider maneuvering of The West Wing.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who's instantly likable and lovable, plays an aspiring documentary filmmaker named Laurel Healy. Her brother Luke, played by Danny Pino, is a Democratic senator.

Laurel agrees to work for her brother for six months, and she instantly becomes the point around which all other plots revolve. She's eventually the one who first notices the odd behavior of some of the people she encounters — the ones who have been possessed by alien bugs. She's also the one who gets a chance, on her first day at work, to field an offer from a Republican staffer named Gareth, played by Aaron Tveit, who just might help avert the impending government shutdown.

Actor Tony Shalhoub (who played the title character in the TV series Monk) injects lots of fun from the start as Republican Senator "Red" Wheatus. So does Zach Grenier (David Lee on The Good Wife) as Laura's manipulative father.

Other enjoyable elements show up a bit later. Starting with Episode 2, for example, singer-songwriter Jonathan Coulton provides a new opening theme song each week — more of a recap, really — singing about what's happened so far.

A theme song that updates you every week? That really makes me laugh. So does the view out of Laurel's ground-floor office window: It's a statue of a soldier astride a horse, but her view is dominated by the horse's behind.

BrainDead is full of little touches like that, including the portrayals of the two rival news networks that everyone on the show watches. One network is liberal, anchored by a short-haired brunette. The other is conservative, anchored by a long-haired blonde played by Megan Hilty, one of several Good Wife occasional players who show up here.

BrainDead is loaded with intriguing little elements, even if they're not instantly explained. Why do the possessed-by-alien people love listening to '80s rock in general, and "You Might Think" by The Cars in particular? And if another of the side effects of alien possession is stubborn extremism, how is anyone supposed to be able to tell the possessed politicians from the others?

After seeing three episodes, I have no idea. What I do know is that BrainDead is on my weekly viewing list — and unlike most of the other hourlong series on my list these days, it's not dark or depressing. It's fun. And this summer, especially during a real-life presidential campaign, and such horrific breaking-news events, that counts for a lot.

Copyright 2016 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.