Well, BrainDead has been on for five weeks now, and it’s gotten marginally better since it started—which is a pretty low bar, considering the pilot. It’s been moved to Sunday nights, and the ratings keep going down, so all signs point to it possibly becoming braindead very soon—but despite the writing on the wall, the show has actually improved in some respects. (Of course, it still has a long way to go.)
Spoilers through Episode 5 of BrainDead below.
Laurel’s life has gotten infinitely more complicated since the pilot episode. She meets Rochelle Daudier, the daughter of Dr. Daudier, and Gustav, an eccentric conspiracy theorist, and together they start trying to figure out what’s up with all the exploding heads. Their current working theory is that the bugs are some variation of screwworm, and they enter through the ear canal and eat half the brain, leading to deafness in one ear, a decrease in balance, and an increase in vitrolic extremism. (The group hasn’t quite figured out that the bugs are from space, but Gustav looks like he’ll get there soon.) Meanwhile, Laurel’s brother Luke finds himself beset on all sides by extreme politicians who he doesn’t know are bug-infested—there’s Ella on the Democratic side, who’s trying to push the whole party to the left, and Red on the Republican side, who says no to everything any Democrat brings up. When Laurel tries to tell him about the bug theory, he dismisses her idea as ridiculous. However, at the end of the latest episode, Laurel might be infected by the bugs herself…
BrainDead is really upping its stakes (I thought the bugs would infest Luke, not the actual protagonist), and I actually find myself enjoying the show’s absurdity each week. The show has some great characters whom they really should have introduced in the pilot—Rochelle and Gustav are both Black, and the two of them have a great rapport. Rochelle is an excellent straight man to Gustav’s more off-the-wall personality, and they’re also liaising with a Dr. Wu at the CDC who, if he becomes a more major character, should fit right in with the group. This is way more diversity than I would ever have expected from the pilot, and though I still want the writers to engage with Luke’s actor’s ethnicity, I’m already really happy with the existing cast. We pass the Bechdel test every episode, every single member of the cast turns in excellent performances, and the show is really starting to live up to its comedic billing, as well. Jonathan Coulton’s sung recaps are as fun as I’d envisioned they would be, and the physical nature of the bugs means that there’s a lot of humor to be found in them—in the latest episode, Gustav puts raw bacon in an infected person’s ear because he mistakenly believes that will serve to draw out a bug or two.
However, despite all these welcome positives, BrainDead’s plot is still… not great. This all boils down to the failure of its satire to make any impact. From a writing standpoint, BrainDead’s concept of “extremism” is both unsubtle and generally poorly written. Everyone argues with one another constantly, but the things they’re arguing about are not equivalent. For example, in Episode 5, an uninfected politician moves to name a kiosk after a deceased police officer named Ed Sharie. Red smoothly cuts in with the objection that “Sharie” sounds like “Sharia law” and the American people will not like that Congress named a kiosk after Sharia law. Ella then interrupts him and demands why Congress can’t name things after women for once. After the room erupts in mindless yelling, Luke escapes the room and mutters to himself about obstructionism and how everyone hates everyone. The message that we’re clearly meant to take from this is all politicians are bad and extremism and yelling is bad. But dismissing both Red’s and Ella’s arguments as one and the same is the same kind of false equivalency that got the Clinton v Trump polls to where they are today. Ella has far more of a point than does Red, but, like a talking head set on giving anti-vaxxers their fair share of the dialogue, the show is so set on painting both political parties as bad that it won’t slow down for nuance.
Infected members of both parties are generally unsubtle and unrealistic, like a comments section come to life. When Laurel and Rochelle go to see an infected white woman in hopes of convincing her to get a CAT scan, the woman takes one look at the African-American Rochelle and says, apropos of literally nothing, “I think all lives matter, not just Black lives”. Similarly, an infected white man, angry about cuts to the National Endowment for the Arts, stalks Laurel and threatens her with a knife over funding for PBS.
The bugs make their hosts more extreme, but no time is given to what that actually means. In their investigations, Gustav, Laurel, and Rochelle mainly focus on how the bugs are infecting people and how they’re spreading—but not why the bugs want to make people extreme, and there’s no concerted effort as of yet to critique said extremism aside from eyerolling and sighing. The writers might have been better served by having the bugs embodify something like Stephen Colbert’s concept of truthiness—that anything can be true as long as you feel it’s true—rather than this vague concept of extremist yelling. Fighting against the concept of truthiness would at least give the writers something to dig into. But in order for them to do that, the show would have to take a stand against something, and, to quote Colbert again, reality “has a well-known liberal bias”. The show tries so hard not to pick on one party in particular that its satire has no true target, and its “extreme” politicians aren’t even as ridiculous as our real politicians, which dampens any attempt at satire before it can even take off.
So thanks to all these flaws, it’s unfortunate that I now find BrainDead… kind of charming, because it looks like it’ll be canceled soon. I hope the writers can turn the second half of the season around, because the cast is fantastic and the show is really improving. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.