Reconciling ‘BrainDead’ and ‘Veep’s’ Opposite Takes on the Core Problem with Contemporary American Politics


As you likely know, you do not know Veep‘s President Selina Meyer’s party affiliation. Veep has, across its five seasons, insisted on never outwardly speaking of which side of our limited political spectrum the character — played by Julia Louis Dreyfus — falls. Outside of being a lazy Susan of grotesque corporeal insults, the series’ political satirical focus is on amplified minutiae, performativity, and the argument that American politics is a matter where (as in House of Cards) ideology always takes a backseat to navigating the political chess-set.

As such, its sustained partisan abstraction has such a dark take on the system as to make the point that ideology is used as a platform for power, rather than the other away around. As the focus of a particular show, this is a fascinating, sustained point to make, but it seems to really only describe a certain facet of American government; Veep only works in full as a concept if you imagine Selina as a moderate Democrat. The Democrats are clearly the party in which moderatism is still upheld as an electable model, while the Republican party has been wholly derailed by extremism. If you see Veep otherwise, it ceases to be quite as pointed — it becomes a hilarious farce with politics as its setting, but less of a satire of the fluid principles of certain moderates.

And if you were to look at it as a more general statement of the meaninglessness of partisanship in American politics (which, again, as a vast statement would seem a false critique), it’d be hard reconciling it as a searing portrait of Washington while also enjoying CBS’ upcoming series, BrainDead (from The Good Wife creators Michelle and Robert King, premiering June 13) as such. For, if taken as commentaries on some universal ill of US politics, the series contradict one another. BrainDead rather posits that the biggest problem with contemporary American government is, as co-creator Robert King said yesterday during a press junket, “purity and partisanship.”All of the episodes are named after fake political essays, and the pilot is fittingly called “The Insanity Principle: How Extremism in Politics is Threatening Democracy in the 21st Century”. The critique is that politicians are now so dogmatic that they’re creating paralysis through polarization. (The series also happens to surround an epidemic of mind-eating-space-bugs overtaking D.C., potentially contributing to the doggedness with which politicians disagree.)

Should you find yourself enjoying both shows and finding their commentary sharp, how do you reconcile their own somewhat opposite, somewhat abstract, takes on the American political system? For me, it’s a matter of ascribing them to two separate but colliding issues. Rather than seeing either as a full representation of “what’s wrong in Washington,” contradiction between the two satire series can be avoided by viewing them collectively representing what’s actually wrong, as evidenced by the current primaries: the useless polarity of the bipartisan system is represented more in the satire of BrainDead, while the flexible, pandering moderacy visible in, say, Hillary Clinton’s career is the type of political strategizing that allows Veep to avoid confronting the fissuring of contemporary American politics along party lines. BrainDead, at least in its early episodes, meanwhile depicts a political climate in which Democrats and Republicans dislike each other to the extent that they negate each other. The truth seems a combination of both visions.

“Politics now is becoming like religion,” BrainDead star Tony Shalhoub said at the junket, surrounding the themes of the series. “There’s a very unsettling parallel developing. People are deciding their stands on — for lack of a better word — a reality. Choosing a reality. And once that decision is made, like a cult, we grab on with blind faith, no matter what’s happening around us.” But if it’s two opposing religions, the problem is that, despite them both hating one another, one is a thoroughly fanatical religion and the other is a religion that’s currently come to function more in tempered reaction to that extreme as its own means of power-play. As the Republicans have moved further toward the right, so too have Democrats, now occupying, as that party’s norm, the very middle. The two poles are actually the right and the center, and in mainstream American politics, the true Left hardly has a space to exist. (Bernie’s troubles with superdelegates being on autopilot for Hillary since the beginning suggest this. In order to be taken at all seriously, he had to run as a Democrat, but the Democratic party was unsurprisingly not so into him.) BrainDead — rather than focusing on the convenient fluidity of a moderate — is about the tensions of a political binary, which is why its own message can (and perhaps should) be taken with a dose of the party-ambiguity of Selina Meyer, especially if Selina Meyer is taken to represent a moderate democrat.

Instead of creating an entire alternate political universe, BrainDead exists in a world where the current real-life candidates are also running for President. The creators use green-screen for television sets throughout the show so that they can insert the most real-life speeches and news clips into episodes as they’re released. And, set against the backdrop of their nauseatingly repetitive soundbites (which actually begin the pilot episode), we see a plot about space bugs invading the minds of Congressmen unfolding. Quite perfectly, it begins with a circumstance we’ve now seen repeatedly, and one that’s paradigmatic of the ways bipartisanship has begun failing: it begins as D.C. nears a government shutdown over a debt ceiling debate.

In 2013 “there was a budget shutdown in D.C. and it seemed that no one was really being sane about it,” said creator Robert King at the junket, seated next to his co-creator, Michelle (they also happen to be married). “With the shutdown it seemed to be where extremism took over — extremism for its own sake…That felt insane…The trend seemed to be that there was no longer room for compromise between the left and the right.”

“What’s interesting about this hopefully is it’s not a political statement from the liberal creative world against conservatives. We are showing how extremism can polarize the country,” said actor Aaron Tveit (Danny Zuko from Grease Live!), who plays Gareth Ritter, the henchman of Republican Congressman Red Wheatus (Tony Shalhoub). Quite fittingly, before Obama attempted to appoint Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court — and thus before that attempted appointment would be so desperately suppressed by Republicans — Robert King explained how the writers’ room for the series had come up with a similar plot, and how he’d initially thought it was too farfetched… and then. “And there is a way to address [this polarity] that, head-on, but that would be so dull, so earnest,” added Michelle King — and thus came the bugs. Michelle King joked that even in a show about bugs eating the brains of Congressman, the news often seems to be “three steps ahead” in its extremist absurdities.

The plot of BrainDead follows Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s documentarian-turned-D.C. newcomer character, Laurel Healey, as she — out of a need to fund a film and pay off student loans — takes on the role of her Congressman brother Luke’s (Danny Pino) constituent liaison. Luke happens to be in trouble — as does the rest of the democratic party — as a government shutdown hinges on one vote. Wheatus, a Republican who’s initially portrayed as being atypically open to conversation, will consider voting to raise the debt ceiling if Luke allots a huge sum of money to a cause he’s interested in; he sends his secondhand man, Gareth, to negotiate. (The atypicality of Wheatus — who’s maybe corrupt but will also negotiate — in the BrainDead world is noteworthy because in Veep that type of politician is more the norm). This leads to the cross-partisan rivalry/romantic spark between Gareth and Laurel who, by the way, will also incidentally probably end up co-investigating the case of the tiny alien insects that happen to be modifying Congresspeople’s minds.

“It’s talking about hatred and how people are almost being united for their hatred for one another — that’s ultimately how people are coming together right now,” said Winstead. “We both can agree that we have nothing in common and hate one another and cannot have any sort of discussion.” Laurel and Gareth are, however, “these idealistic hopeful people who hopefully represent the best of their respective parties, who want to live side by side and have discussions and debates and maybe actually get somewhere by the end of the day.”

Unlike Veep’s portrait of the capital, which is all about a web of micro-corruptions (and which both creators praised excitedly when I brought it up), Robert King said, “the problem is not corruption in D.C. The problem is purity. The problem is such an extreme purity people no longer talk. As silly as [BrainDead] can be, it wants to see how some of the same mistakes that went into 2008 — basically recession/depression, can happen again.” So presumably, the government shutdown over the lack of an agreement on the debt ceiling will only be the beginning of the crash that’ll occur in the series’ first season. (If it’s picked up for other seasons, the creators revealed that each one will be ensconced in a different American milieu: Season 2 would be Wall Street, Season 3 would be Silicon Valley, and Season 4 would be Hollywood, but the same characters would be investigating the aftermath of everything that’s going on politically/with alien bugs in all of these other fields.)

Robert King elaborated on how the show’s thematic focus is these political extremes, noting that in future episodes “there’s a Tea Partier movement and also a Bernie Bros movement that comes out of this budget shutdown, but also we’re playing it as if it’s happening during the presidential campaign.” For this series, the staunch lack of compromise is fearful: for Veep, it’s too much fluidity that’s fearful. If Veep may speak to the pandering, strategic moderatism of many mainstream Democrats and BrainDead is about the bipartisan system leading to standstills, the key missing ingredient is, well, a real Left — and a bigger presence of various other parties, so that instead of an extreme group and a moderate group clashing, politics would be a debate rather than a duel.

In the first seasons of Veep, while the veep was actually still the veep, the party to which Selina Meyer belonged especially didn’t matter because the whole point was the much-ado-about-nothing element of the Vice President position — the need to perform one’s job as though emulating the powerful-sounding title, while relegating the gravity of your work to politicized visits to yogurt shops, anti-obesity campaigns in sports complexes, and the receiving of gargantuan Angry Birds trophies from the Prime Minister of Finland. But once Selina became President, the evasion of her partisanship would have been a little less on point unless it simply all pointed to her being a Democrat. (It pretty much wholly does — if I recall on an electoral map earlier this season or last, it appeared that Selina’s states were blue.)

Because the Right is so obstinate, if they get a stranglehold on Congress, they’ll even force a more left-leaning dem like Obama into the center. The ability to compromise, of course, leads to a fluid government that doesn’t face the types of standstills ours currently does. But it becomes a weakness when the other side refuses to compromise, thus leaving the more flexible party to be drawn evermore flexibly away from the ideals of the left. As was seen in Sunday night’s episode of Veep, Selina is more than willing to use policy she doesn’t believe in to bargain for Congresspeople’s allegiances. Her own politics — commingling with whomever she needs to advance her political role — are always a step away from a PR fiasco, in the vein of Hillary’s much-discussed Wall Street speeches; as even more of a mirror of reality, Selina Meyer had a similar email-oriented fiasco. On the flip side, the show also explores how Meyer has had to work extra hard to navigate her own male dominated sphere, as well as battle a media culture who’ll use her gender — rather than her policy — against her. (I likewise mentioned in an earlier piece how Veep addressed how the media has helped exacerbate an identity war based on Hillary’s status as a woman president.) The hatred from the Right has been channeled through misogyny from the right (and unfortunately from some of Sanders’ supporters), and that misogyny has galvanized a lot of people in support of her — who perhaps wouldn’t have been quite as enthralled by a candidate with a history of warmongering, prior support of the incarceration state, and a slow learning curve on LGBT rights, if it hadn’t been for the gross hardships faced by women in politics.

Perhaps in taking these two shows together, then, one can find two polar satirical ideas that actually don’t bring about a satirical paralysis similar to the governmental one BrainDead fears. If you apply their abstract ideas to particular facets of this election, BrainDead and Veep begin representing its problems in its entirety. Because it’s not one or the other, with just ideological extremism or ideological vacuity in Washington, that are making the country, well, kinda unbearable: it’s a combination that, frankly, has made none of the candidates particularly desirable, and has brought about, once again (especially with Hillary now having supposedly “clinched” the Democratic election) a dearth of options that boils down to voting for lesser-evilism. (And unfortunately, in the general election, so-doing will be crucial).

On one side of the spectrum, it’s been an election of “extremes.”(Bernie is only an “extreme” because American politics haven’t caught up to European politics — and because we don’t have a true Left.) Trump and to an extent Bernie both caught the attention of a startling number of people, more through repeated, liberatory mantras than cogent plans. Each caught people’s attention with their calling upon the failures of the system roadblocked by partisan politics. But despite his liberatory mumbo-jumbo, Trump is still an extremist, who has managed to take over an extreme party. Bernie was just a leftist with no real space in a bipartisan government that represents the Right and the moderates — and so, his revolution seems to have been stifled.

Meanwhile, Hillary exemplifies the democratic moderate, a candidate who was flexible enough to move towards the Left while battling Bernie Sanders, and thus might more unsettlingly be flexible enough to move farther to the Right as an actual President, especially if she, like Obama, has to deal with the bipartisan staunchness that brought about paralysis between the legislative and executive branches during Obama’s time in office. In matters of LGBT rights, black lives, and peacemaking, so many facets of her political ideology do not mirror some of the decisions she’s made in the past. (But, no matter what, she won’t be as dangerous as Trump, regardless of what Susan Sarandon thinks!)

Perhaps the reason why both BrainDead and Veep work side-by-side and without contradiction is because it all just kind of sucks. It is not a government run by two extremes: it is a government run by an extreme Right and a center, and the two disdain one another as if they were both extremes. As Jezebel notes, there’s a new hashtag being used by people — particularly people of color — who now as a necessity will vote for Hillary, despite her former support for, say, the 1994 crime bill that saw the highly increased incarceration of black Americans: #GirlIGuessImWithHer. Now that it looks like we have our two candidates, it’s so necessary to equivocate and stop Trump. This November, we’ll just have to vote not for ideology, but for that equivocation. As usual.