I love watching political dramas, but it’s rare that political dramas (or satires, or comedies) ever intersect with speculative fiction. Aside from the brave president gunning down some space invaders, we don’t usually get a show about the inner workings of American politics which also includes aliens. That’s why I was so excited to hear about CBS’s summer show BrainDead. Not only does it boast a stellar cast, it also posits that gridlock in Washington is a result of brain-eating alien zombies. Sounds good, right? Unfortunately, I’d like to posit that BrainDead suffers a little from the zombie infection itself.
BrainDead centers around Laurel Healy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), an earnest filmmaker who doesn’t have enough money to finish her projects or pay off her student loans. (Been there.) She’s from a rich family, though, and her father says that if she works for her brother, Democratic Senator Luke Healy (Danny Pino), for half a year, he’ll finance half of her current project. Laurel reluctantly agrees, and once in D.C., starts in the role of constituent caseworker, helping Luke’s constituents with their personal grievances. She quickly finds out that a constituent’s husband worked on a boat and may have somehow been infected by a space meteor from Russia that they were transporting. Along with a Republican frenemy, Gareth Ritter (Aaron Tveit), she has to figure out how these aliens work, while helping Luke with his questionable political games.
It’s a show that tries to combine both the political drama and sci-fi genres, but BrainDead is not particularly succeeding at either. Politically speaking, BrainDead doesn’t take any political stances at all—Laurel is an outsider, and the show goes out of its way to say that Democrats are bad and Republicans are bad without discussing any issues or reasons as to why. The closest it comes to actual politics is showing clips of speeches by current presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, and Bernie Sanders, but these clips aren’t integrated into the show at all—they’re just there as “this is really about politics, you guys!” background noise. Without taking any political stances, BrainDead can’t have a “government is a place where people can come together” thesis, like The West Wing, and it can’t have a “government is a place filled with manipulative backstabbers and incompetents” thesis, like The Thick of It or Veep. It’s just a show that’s vaguely set in D.C.
The characters don’t do the show any favors, either. While it’s clear that Laurel loves her brother, Luke quickly reveals himself to be an arrogant bully who’s cheating on his pregnant wife, while his Republican counterpart, Senator Wheatus (Tony Shalhoub), shows that he’s lazy and cowardly as well as a bit of a slob and a drinker before being taken over by the aliens. Gareth is the typical smooth talking political operative, but isn’t given any room in the script to grow past the condescending trope. We’re told that he has an autistic sister as a reason to feel sympathy for him, not as any attempt at real representation. All these characters use BrainDead’s in-show government shutdown as an attempt to score political points, and as a person who lives in D.C. and has friends and family who were affected by the previous (real) government shutdown, this was a real turn off. Laurel is the only likeable character, but that’s a lot of negatives to work past.
On the other side of BrainDead’s genre problems, there isn’t a whole lot to go on in regards to the aliens. In another nod to real life, scientists in the U.S. and Russia were working together to study a meteor that had crash landed in Russia, but work was halted when the government shut down (although you’d think this kind of work would be important enough to keep going). The meteor, unattended by anyone, cracks, and a ton of little black space ants crawls out of its surface. Soon, we’re treated to the icky sight of the ants crawling in people’s ear canals and eating their brains. If the host tries to fight the ants, their head explodes. It’s all a little slapstick, but once the ants have taken over, the person doesn’t appear to change too much. They become health food devotees, stop drinking, are fans of an 80s rock song, and are a little more extreme in their views, and that’s, so far, all. What they want and how they fit into politics is yet to be determined, but if they’re just there to say “extremism is bad”, I think we… already know that.
Representation-wise, BrainDead only had a few characters of color, and the two most important ones were both taken over by the ants in the first episode: Breanna, the constituent, was held in place by her husband so that the ants could take her, and the scientist in charge of the meteor, Dr. Daudier, fought the ants too hard and his brain exploded. Not the greatest way for our only two Black characters of note to go. Danny Pino, who plays Luke Healy, is Cuban-American, but this falls into the problem with colorblind casting, particularly in regard to Latinxs playing non-Latinx roles: there’s no room for them to expand on their ethnicity and cultural issues, leading to poor representation and identity erasure. Our two leads, of course, are the very white Laurel and Gareth, and there don’t appear to be any other minority characters of note.
Of course, the first episode of a show isn’t everything, and I’ll give BrainDead a couple more episodes before I give up on it. I still want it to do well—I love political stories, and adding some sci-fi to it could turn out really well, depending on where they take the story. Even if the writing isn’t the best, the cast is pretty great, and I hear that future episodes will feature a sung recap by Jonathan Coulton, geek extraordinaire. However, this first episode, while billed as a dramedy, didn’t give me much to laugh about, and it might not find its footing soon enough for CBS’s liking.