The Summer of Streaming: BrainDead
THE WORLD has gone mad. It’s the same sentiment we’ve been preaching since satire began. Whenever people feel dissatisfied, they tend to act a little extra crazy in order to make their voices heard. Politics is losing its middle ground, we are stuck making between extremists on the left and right, this is nowhere clearer in America than where Donald Trump is dangerously close to being Commander In Chief. Donald Trump, take that in for a second, imagine if Alan Sugar announced he was running for leader of the Tories? You’d think it was a joke, you’d think it was insane. It’s almost like there’s an infection taking over our brains, making us act this way, what if there is?
That brings us to BrainDead, a summer ‘event’ series on US Network CBS but available in its entirety on Amazon Prime Video here in the UK. BrainDead is essentially The West Wing by way of Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, it stars 10 Cloverfield Lane‘s Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Laurel Healy, a documentary filmmaker asked by her father (the wonderful Zach Grenier) to help out her senator brother, Luke (Danny Pino) in Washington DC as his constituent case handler. Things start to get interesting when a constituent asks her to look into her father who has been acting differently, more overly political, just plain a bit weird. A comet crashing to Earth, some alien ants crawling into people’s ears and a few head explosions later and she’s fully immersed in a conspiracy by some kind of extraterrestrial beings to take over the world.
What works so well about the series and makes it so different to many similar approaches to such subject matter is that it is Politics first and Aliens second, in fact some episodes can go by and you might even forget the alien threat (at least if it weren’t for some delightful, witty ‘previously on…’ Sections recorded by geek rock icon Jonathan Coulton). A lot of sci-fi tales tend to rely on their creatures to maintain tension but you get the feeling that the story would work even if it were just a straight democrats vs republicans political battle. Some of the political grandstanding can be obvious and lacking in subtlety, but considering this is a tale about space bugs making people act more overtly political, that almost seems the point. The first few episodes arc revolve around a government shutdown and the bureaucratic nightmare that follows, it takes in bill negotiations, torture debates, terrorist threats and filibusters and enough backstabbing and outmanoeuvring to make Frank Underwood’s head spin. It’s somehow incredibly cynical but equally optimistic with its representation of the alien plague being the cause of most of the problems in DC. In the real world, politicians are sadly just as corrupt and dim-witted but they sadly can’t use the “Brain Ant” excuse
What really makes the programme are the performances. Sure, people are going to notice Tony Shalhoub’s hammy, hilarious performance as drunken Baltimore senator Red Wheetus, infected by the alien queen bee and rehabilitated into a juice drinking, conservative parody but this is truly Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s show, turning in a performance where she manages to tell more in a single glance than a lot of actors can with a monologue. It’s also worth noting her chemistry with Wheetus’ chief of staff Gareth Ritter (Aaron Tveit) is positively explosive and her cohorts in the conspiracy Rochelle (Nikki M James) and Gustav (Johnny Ray Gill) are given the least material to work with but manage to do so much with it to imbue the most expository dialogue with character. Even Charlie Semine, immediately coming off as a faintly bland love interest, quickly becomes a quietly threatening and subtly predatory menace of the kind rarely portrayed so lacking in cliché, especially on Network television. If there is one weakness to the ensemble (beyond having three broadway stars in James, Tveit and Jan Maxwell and Dan The Automator collaborator Winstead together and having little in the way of musical sequences), it’s that sometimes the side characters are so thinly drawn that it’s hard to know if they’re aliens, with Jan Maxwell’s democratic yon to Shalhoub’s yang being especially tone-deaf at times in spite of her considerable acting chops but that once again may be the point. Also character actress Margo Martindale is only in one episode which is not nearly enough.
Part of the joy of ‘event’ television is that it’s left open for another season but if it needs to be,mit’s one and done. So many political thrillers end up exhausting their point by going on for too long (here’s looking at you, Homeland). As a result, structurally, it’s nice seeing a series with a deliberate end point as it makes every scene feel more pointed and intentional instead of floundering for purpose. Yet, it’s far from perfect. It’s possible to say that maybe thirteen episodes was just a hint too many for a job that could have been done in ten and early episodes take their time to get going as it seems to feel a need to essentially re-pilot for a couple of weeks in case people missed episodes one or two and struggles with balancing politics and aliens. Yet as its confidence grows, its ability to weave in grand set-pieces like an episode in which Laurel is waiting to find out if she’ll be ‘questioned’ by the FBI via waterboarding or the first full coital encounter between Laurel and Gareth as she tries to get bugs out of her head becomes more deftly handled and well-staged managing to be tense, funny and (in the latter’s case) sexy at the same time.
If I can say one thing more about this show, well done on the bugs themselves. I don’t know why but CGI insects frequently reek of artifice but BrainDead manages to pull off a near impossible and make the bugs (bar a few shots but its TV CGI, it’s always a hint shonky) seem real. That’s about as much as need be said. I’ve tried not to say too much because there’s a few twists and turns in there that I would feel guilty if I spoiled (I know I’ve already ruined a handful) but genuinely some of the most entertaining and pointed political television since Sorkin took his last Jeb Bartlett monologue out of his typewriter (I assume Sorkin still uses a typewriter, he seems to hate these millenials with their damn laptops). Come for the aliens, stay for the politics, or the other way round if that’s more your thing but either way, this show doesn’t have nearly enough people talking about it especially considering the award-worthy performance of Winstead. Sit down, enjoy it, and be prepared to look at anyone suspiciously if they start bumping into walls, drinking juice or listening to The Cars’ ‘You Might Think’.