UK TV review: BrainDead Season 1: Episodes 1 to 3 (spoiler-free)
Ivan Radford | On 05, Jul 2016
If you’ve looked at the news in the last few months, you’ll be all too aware that the world is messed up. The UK is leaving the European Union. Donald Trump is on the verge of becoming President of the United States. People are becoming more and more extreme in their views. What the heck is going on? BrainDead, a new US TV series from The Good Wife’s creators Robert and Michelle King, is the answer you’re looking for.
The show follows Lauren (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a documentary filmmaker who reluctantly agrees to take a job helping her brother, Democratic Senator Luke Healy (Danny Pino), so she can raise money for her next project. While she hates politics, though, she soon finds she has a knack for it, hooking up with rival staffer Gather Ritter (Aaron Tveit), who works for Republic Senator Red Wheatus (Tony Shalhoub). With a budget disagreement about to cause the government to shut down, it looks like she’s secured a deal to make peace – until Red suddenly backs out. Why did he change his mind so suddenly? And why are people in Luke’s office acting so strangely?
The answer lies in a Russian meteorite, which has just crashed on Earth. Inside? A horde of extra-terrestrial bugs that are crawling into people’s ears, chomping on their grey matter, and controlling them. Alien brain-eating ants. Not what you expected, is it?
That’s the inspired secret to BrainDead’s surprise success – within minutes, we’re whisked away from the serious Washington discussions to witness creepy crawlies crawling creepily onto people’s beds, brains shooting out of people’s ears and, in some cases, heads exploding. (Sadly, not Donald Trump’s.) Directors Robert King and Jim McKay revel in the chance to make red stuff splatter all over the place – and drip out of all kinds of orifices – while brainiac Gustav Triplett (Johnny Ray Gill) attempts to work out what’s going on.
There’s a touch of Cronenberg to the body horror (note: this is not a show for entomophobes), but a whole heap of 80s cheese to go with it – as soon as you see an innocent cat in the background, you start counting down the episodes until it gets infected. That dark sense of humour is crucial to selling the whole thing; Johnny Ray Gill is enjoyably twitchy as Gus, making sure the ridiculous premise is never too credible, while Tony Shalhoub is as excellent as ever as the eerily upbeat Red.
At the same time, though, there needs to be weight to the political plot. It’s a tough balancing act to pull off, but over the first three episodes, the show manages it with unexpected precision.
That’s largely down to the cast, as Pino plays Luke as straight as possible, and Nikki M. James’ medical expert Rochelle brings cool smarts to the table, as well as grief over the death of her father. (Cranial explosions aren’t usually a source of emotion, but this is about as close as it can get.)
At the heart of it all is Mary Elizabeth Winstead. Despite excellent turns in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Smashed and 10 Cloverfield Lane, Winstead is a hugely underrated performer, so it’s a treat to see her given a lead role in a series. She brings her charisma fully to bear, the show’s entire double-narrative hanging on her likeable anchor. She moves from wryly amusing observations about politicians and being freaked out by insects to swooning over her Republican crush and getting annoyed by her brother’s gradually corrupted morals.
Sure enough, scandals rear their head, from affairs to dodgy deals and threats of cutting off funds (a US budget shut-down still looms in America’s recent history). While those would usually fuel the tension in a more conventional Capitol tale, BrainDead focuses on the lingering fear in the background: the fact that more and more people are beginning to recite the same absurd ideals, word for word, using those scandals to nudge the whole country to more extreme positions. Where Luke represents common sense, Red, Luke’s Democrat rivals and the bugged-up drones all refuse to compromise, turning from sensible sidekicks (and friends of Lauren) to unnerving Donald Trump-a-likes.
It’s not just the Republicans in the cross-hairs: both sides of the aisle are to blame, as America’s two-party system becomes swept up in a growing cycle of overblown rhetoric. Episode titles, such as “The Insanity Principle: How Extremism in Politics is Threatening Democracy in the 21st Century”, make it clear that this show does have something going on between its ears. That point is subtly linked to the B-movie vibe by the witty use of You Might Think by The Cars, which the aliens like to listen to over and over. After a while, the ear worm gets you too – a reminder of just how easy it is for an idea to spread unchecked.
Even better is another musical motif, which sees each episode begin with a singalong recap of what’s gone before – a hilarious and charming flourish from a show that doesn’t shy away from unpredictable outbursts of offbeat imagination. After all, when the world has gotten this absurd, why bother to be serious? With enough laughs to keep you entertained, BrainDead’s bizarre mix of sci-fi, social commentary and spontaneous combustion makes for a fun, trashy distraction from the news. But beneath the silliness lies a bitingly satirical question – how else do you explain what’s going on?
Episodes 1 to 3 of BrainDead are available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video, as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription. New episodes arrive every Tuesday within 24 hours of their US debut.