In the first episode of BrainDead, the new CBS comedy/thriller from The Good Wife creators Robert and Michelle King, a senator named Red Wheatus becomes the victim of a strange infection that seems to be taking over Washington. As Wheatus (Tony Shalhoub) dozes on the couch, we hear the faint sounds of newscasters debating the election on the TV in the background. The camera zooms in on a swarm of tiny bugs making a beeline for the senator; just as Donald Trump begins to deliver a speech on TV, the bugs crawl into Wheatus’s ear. He wakes up and knocks the side of his head, and out plops a slimy chunk of brain matter. He sighs with content, as if he’s just taken a shit. What a relief to be brainless and complacent.
BrainDead, which premieres tonight on CBS, is a teddy bear with fangs, a stinging political satire that bluntly criticizes Washington partisanship and yet radiates hope for the future. The show follows Laurel Healy (an excellent Mary Elizabeth Winstead), an aspiring documentary filmmaker who comes to Washington to work for her brother Luke (Danny Pino), the Democratic whip. The series is set against the very real backdrop of the 2016 election, and captures the campaign’s suffocating inescapability better than any piece of entertainment I’ve seen, which only sharpens the show’s central metaphor: On the eve of a government shutdown, a mysterious strain of insect lands on American soil and begins eating the brains of Washingtonians.
As a Washington outsider, Laurel is our Trojan horse. Her job is to meet with her brother’s constituents and try to help them, but she quickly learns that her job is less to help than to mollify. “Only feel if it makes you effective,” Luke instructs. When one constituent comes to her out of concern for her husband — an engineer on a container ship who’s been acting strange since returning from a recent trip — she sets Laurel down a potentially dangerous path as she investigates the cause of his sudden shift in behavior.
Her work leads her to Gustav Triplett (Johnny Ray Gill), an amateur scientist who’s been tracking cases of people’s heads exploding due to “overheated blood” (get it?). Gustav is like your friend who’s obsessed with conspiracy theories but is smart enough that you don’t want to discredit him completely. “Bugs are eating people’s brains,” he whispers, paranoid, when the two meet, but Laurel becomes less skeptical as she starts to make connections between seemingly unrelated events. BrainDead doesn’t only make the show’s smartest character a regular person and not a Washington insider; it also teams him up with another private citizen, Rochelle Daudier (Tony Award-winning Nikki M. James), a medical resident whose father died under mysterious circumstances. Amidst a backdrop of governmental chaos, Gustav and Rochelle quietly get down to business.
Despite the whole brain-eating bugs concept, BrainDead is set against a remarkably realistic, ripped-from-the-headlines backdrop. At the end of the first episode, a Rachel Maddow photocopy named Claudia Monarch declares on her cable news show, “Bipartisanship is dead.” A fictional news program will play a segment of a toxic Trump speech, immediately followed by a newscaster saying something disparaging about Democrats. Anchor chatter and clips of the actual presidential candidates’ speeches hum in the background of homes and offices; the production uses green screens in place of actual TV shows in order to insert the most up-to-date footage.
BrainDead doesn’t veil political critiques through Trump stand-ins like Scandal’s Hollis Doyle, and it doesn’t coyly refrain from assigning characters specific political parties, like Veep. When Laurel runs into an old friend, Abby (Brooke Bloom) at the Tax Foundation’s annual dinner, she’s surprised that Abby — who recently won a MacArthur “genius” grant for her fiction writing — is working for a right-wing organization called “Help America Rise Again.” The play on Trump’s slogan is clear, and the replacement of “great” with “rise” renders the phrase particularly Third Reich-y.
The show isn’t afraid to go to dark places — or to depict people’s brains exploding in comically gory fashion — but at its core is a plea to what we have in common: flesh and blood. Luke’s wife is pregnant, but he’s having an affair with his Chief of Staff, Scarlett Pierce (Paige Patterson). Yet Laurel’s brother is not vilified as an evil, heartless politician; in fact, he explains his transgression to Laurel as a reaction against the stifling inhumanity of so much of his work — giving in to another living, breathing human in the midst of “trying to figure out what Concurrent Resolution B has to do with a real person.”
The show also sets up a star-crossed lovers situation by creating some hot friction between Laurel and Wheatus’s Legislative Director, Gareth Ritter (Aaron Tveit), a Republican. Neither is vilified nor glorified, and Winstead and Tveit have wonderful chemistry; when they argue, they’re really flirting, and despite their differences they’re both idealistic.
BrainDead is a plea for bipartisanship and a reminder that at the very least, Republicans and Democrats are the same species. Like the Season 2 finale of The Carmichael Show, which has a character throwing his weight behind Trump to the dismay of his family members, BrainDead is interested in the grey zone between politics and personal relationships. The bug metaphor brilliantly captures that queasy feeling when people you think you know suddenly jump on board a ship headed in a direction you don’t like, as if infected by a virus that’s totally out of their control. Too bad we can’t make the same excuse.
BrainDead premieres tonight at 10 p.m. on CBS.