What if the political hysteria in 2016 was caused by brain-eating insects? In the world of CBS’s “BrainDead,” anything is possible. Upon the arrival of an unknown ant species, an outbreak of chaos ensues in a depiction of Washington D.C. that is wacky, but not unrealistic. The show’s combination of science fiction and political comedy-drama makes it stand out as particularly amusing and unconventional. All 13 of the 45-minute-long episodes are available on Amazon Prime Video and CBS All Access.
A Spoiler-Free Summary of “BrainDead”
“In the year 2016, there was a growing sense that people were losing their minds. And no one knew why. Until now.”
When Laura Healy returns home to work for her brother, Luke, a Maryland senator, the D.C. cherry blossom trees are in full bloom. They are also full of an unknown insect species that feeds on the brains of Capitol Hill politicians. A few heads explode, but the most common side effect of the “infection” — or pandemic — is increased aggression that results in the heightened polarization between left- and right-wing representatives and a consequent loss of conviction: The Republican and Democratic labels turn into brands, like Chex and Cheerios, according to the primary antagonist.
Although she is disgusted by her personal experience of D.C., where politics seem more about the game than genuine governance, Laurel is forced to play along when the Capitol erupts into political pandemonium. Surrounded by the two-faced and the “brain dead,” she can only trust her newfound friends, Dr. Rochelle Dauidier and NSA agent Gustav Triplett, to help investigate the cause of the pandemic when no one else believes her. As they save the country from falling apart, the audience can expect their journey to be weird but entertaining. Viewers will not be disappointed.
A Spoiler-Free Review
“BrainDead” is entertaining, bold and offbeat. In addition to the mix of real-world elements inspired by politics and its outlandish sci-fi premise, the show also has some unique touches that make it unlike anything I have seen previously. For instance, I always look forward to the recaps — something I normally skip — which in the show are catchy songs that summarize previous episodes in a way that is memorable and creative. They are also, at times, meta, poking fun at the show itself. Its use of The Cars’ “You Might Think I’m Crazy” is intentionally unforgettable and similarly endearing.
What sets “BrainDead” apart as a comedy is the character interactions and reactions in ridiculous situations. The scene involving an unstable Laurel, her horrified love interest Gareth Ritter, the song “I Think I Love You” by The Partridge Family, awkward sexual tension and the untimely consumption of dark chocolate and salami is, in the best sense of the word, bizarre. Even better, Gustav jokes about it to Rochelle: “Have you noticed in horror movies Black people die first,” suggesting that if anyone dies, it would instead be the white characters Laurel and Gareth.
Although the circumstances are out of this world, the characters who are not “brain dead” are believable as ordinary people. There is nothing special about the protagonist, Laurel. As a Washington outsider, she notices the shift in politicians’ behavior before anyone else and has no choice but to investigate the root cause. Her brother, Luke, a pragmatic Democrat, is primarily interested in maintaining his image to run for president in 2020. Therefore, his decisions are sometimes made in self-interest; he is neither noble like Jed Bartlet of “The West Wing,” nor morally corrupt like Frank Underwood from “House of Cards.” Instead, he is a convincing politician who makes mistakes like anyone else.
Additionally, the forbidden romance between liberal Laurel and conservative Gareth, who came to Washington because he believes in “low government, incentives for small businesses, and the smart use of taxes,” is realistic. Although they often disagree, they work together when it matters and get along like reasonable adults, united by their common enemy: the rampant disorder and destruction in D.C., especially as caused by Gareth’s dangerously brain-dead boss, Red Wheatus. They let go of their prejudices, but not their convictions.
Aside from the authenticity of the characters, because it takes place in a world so similar to ours, watching “BrainDead” requires a small suspension of belief. In the show, the left brain versus right brain myth is true, and somehow, an NSA agent and a doctor easily ditch their jobs to wander around D.C. with gadgets trying to find brain-eating insects from outer space. Neither of these complaints are deal breakers, but they irritated me the entire time.
However, the extreme political polarization and reliance on fear mongering might be more believable. Blaming, dismissing and thwarting the progress of the opposition party is nothing new. Nevertheless, be it out of optimism, naïveté or denial, I prefer to believe that most people are not ignorant enough to take their blind hatred quite as far as the One-Wayers and No-Wayers do in “BrainDead.” And I hope they never do.
Further, although polarization and its inability to promote progress is a major force of destruction in the show, I do not believe “BrainDead” intends to preach that we should all simply forget our differences and hold hands. Not only is that impossible and unnecessary, but the show, like real life, is more complex than that. It is an entertaining take on the events leading up to the 2016 election. Politics and politicians are the focal point, but it is not political. Instead of condemning candidates and parties or pushing issues, “BrainDead” essentially argues that politicians can operate with “half a brain” with few people noticing a difference, and that corruption and malice can be found anywhere — left, right or center.
With its depiction of the polarization and hysteria in 2016, the deep involvement of the CDC and the presence of a threatening pandemic, the chaos in “BrainDead” is distressingly similar to the current political and social climate. While the show is not reassuring in 2020, it is bizarre, farcical and entertaining enough to be escapist TV. For your next quarantine binge-watching session, consider this thoughtful one-season show if you want to smile and be a little frightened.