We’re in the midst of an unusually contentious presidential election, and one in which the typical playbook for candidates has been entirely discarded by one party’s presumptive nominee. Against this extraordinary backdrop, CBS has launched a series that argues not merely that political engagement is silly and pointless, but also that America’s two major political parties have effectively no differences between them. BrainDead, the new series from The Good Wife creators Michelle and Robert King, feels out of step with the political scene it sets out to satirize. It’s less a missed opportunity than entirely misbegotten.
BrainDead, which premieres Monday night, takes as its story the struggle of an earnest would-be documentarian (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, 10 Cloverfield Lane) forced to work in the office of her brother, a U.S. Senator (Danny Pino). She stumbles upon a strange epidemic whereby ants from outer space (transported to the Beltway, naturally, by a meteor that crashed in Russia) enter human crania and turn people into absent-minded robots who become blandly obsessed with politics.
This Invasion of the Body Snatchers-style plot features brains leaking out of human ears, but isn’t weird enough to work as farce (though the songs that open each episode, recapping the plot, try very hard for glee, and end up just being trying). Rather than odd in a distinctive way, the show is yet another D.C. satire, but with little to say. (The Senators we see fight endlessly over leadership posts, not any issue that might make the show have to say anything.)
The malady at the heart of BrainDead is meant to parallel the aggressive partisanship on the current contemporary scene; both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are shown on TV screens, constantly, and heard as dull background noise. This makes for an odd contrast that can’t be what the Kings intended. The very presence of Trump, a figure whose policy positions and whose rhetoric (in just about every speech other than the carefully chosen dull ones he’s shown giving on BrainDead) differ meaningfully from every other politician in his orbit, negates the show’s argument that both sides are equal and that choosing between them is pointless.
There’s something almost painful about watching BrainDead struggle to find a point that must have seemed obvious when the election was meant to be between two members of the permanent political class. Perhaps its points would have landed had the election been between Clinton and, say, Jeb Bush, a candidate perceived as more fueled by the grinding gears of partisan tradition than by passion. Then again, it’s hard to imagine BrainDead working at any point in history—its ideas, chiefly the rejection of the concept of having ideas, are just too toxic.
Take one moment that’s particularly painful now, but that wouldn’t have worked at even the most opportune moment. Winstead’s character is talking to a zombified friend, who’s now devoting her life to liberal causes. Her flat delivery of various liberal platitudes builds to the pronouncement “There are only three gun deaths a year in Finland—three!” Her being quite so interested in the subject is treated as the incontrovertible moment her madness has taken root. For the writers, having an interest (on either side) in gun control, perhaps the defining political issue of our time, is proof that there’s something wrong with you. It’s a message the public who votes with their remotes ought to reject.