The line between courageously creative and downright foolhardy is a thin one, especially in television. We applaud taking chances even if the result falls short. But when it’s a near complete mess, all we can do is look away.
“BrainDead,” created by Michelle King and Robert King and premiering on Monday, June 13, on CBS, is described in a press summary as a “comic-thriller.” Well, there is one moment of humor when a man tapes plastic cups to his ears so his head won’t be invaded by space bugs. As for being a “thriller,” the only part that vaguely qualifies is that the story is set in real time during the 2016 presidential election and we don’t yet know if it will be President Clinton or President Trump.
Laurel Healy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is a young documentary filmmaker who is unable to get funding for her current project and is basically blackmailed by her rich father Dean Healy (Zach Grenier) into taking a job with her brother, the Democratic Senate Whip Luke Healy (Danny Pino). If she sticks with the job for six months, daddy will give her money to finish her film.
Her job is to solve constituent problems, which leads her into a mystery surrounding a recovered meteor that seems to have had some kind of effect on the husband of one constituent named Breanna Burke (Nilaja Sun). One day, Breanna is sure something got into her husband’s brain, the next day, she’s never been happier.
The difference is space bugs: An intergalactic breed of screwworms that literally get inside your head and change your personality. They don’t stop at Breanna Burke and her husband. Soon they’re romping around the crania of a couple of US senators, a young chess player, a renowned scientist and a college friend of Laurel’s. At worst, they can cause a host’s head to explode like one of Gallagher’s watermelons.
“Not many people know about this, but bugs fart,” says Gustav Triplett (Johnny Ray Gill), who is obsessed with stopping the infestation.
There are some humanizing, albeit predictable, subplots, such as the flirtatious alliance between Laurel and Gareth Ritter (Aaron Tveit), the boyish aide to Republican Sen. Red Wheatus (Tony Shalhoub), and her equally flirtatious relationship with FBI Agent Anthony Onofrio (Charlie Semine). And there are some gimmicky red herrings, such as a pair of FBI agents who turn up from time to time to share a candy bar.
The actors are appealing and the performances are weirdly credible, but only if you don’t bother to think about what’s being said.
The cast’s good work is fatally underminded by the show’s fuzzy concept. After space bugs set up housekeeping in the first politician’s brain, we get the joke. By the second or third occupation, it gets tiresome. We get the irony: Politicians are brainless and now their heads are exploding.
Granted, this year’s presidential election is exhausting and depressing and we’re bombarded with political coverage on the media. But there is still room for smart and funny political satire. In fact, when it is smart and funny. We see that every week with “Veep,” for example.
The Kings of course were the creators of “The Good Wife,” and Ridley Scott, who was that show’s executive producer, is onboard in that capacity again. Other reminders are scattered about “BrainDead,” such as the presence of Grenier, who played David Lee in Diane Lockhart’s law firm, and actors such as Megan Hilty and Nikki M. James who had recurring roles on “The Good Wife.”
The fact that “The Good Wife” has only been off the air for a few weeks, and that it was justifiably memorable, sets high expectations for the Kings’ follow-up. But every series has to be taken on its own merits, and even if the Kings hadn’t created one of the best shows on broadcast in the last decade, you’d still scratch your head trying to find either a reason to keep watching “BrainDead,” or a space bug making a beeline for your ear canal.
After three episodes, I might vote for the latter.