Tuesday, 21 March 2017


Mini ETs eating the brains of politicians in Washington? That would 
explain everything.

On a Capitol Hill bug hunt... Mary Elizabeth Wanstead as
Laurel Healey. (Image copyright: CBS)

Last year, before Donald Trump was making the jaws of politicians and political commentators across the world hit the floor in astonishment/disbelief/disgust/terror, a rather enjoyable political satire called BrainDead debuted on the CBS network in America. 

At the time, some people thought the premise was a bit far-fetched: Surreptitiously, alien insects devour the grey matter of Democrats and Republicans, taking them over in the process and making them more extreme. To start with, people around them either don’t notice the change or try to laugh it off.

In the light of recent events, that seems more like reportage than science fiction.

BrainDead was a sweet little thing, created by Robert and Michelle King. The good-in-everything-she’s-been-in Mary Elizabeth Winstead played Laurel Healey, a documentary maker hard up for cash who agrees to work for her Senator brother, the randy Luke (suave Danny Pino – someone always has to play a randy Senator.) So far so West Wing, but the arrival of a meteorite infested by a minuscule extra-terrestrial life form pushes things in an enjoyably offbeat direction.

Notorious drunk and womanising Republican Senator “Red” Wheatus (the always watchable Tony Shalhoub, probably best known for Monk) is suddenly downing health drinks and becomes a Machiavellian political operator, engineering a Republican majority in Congress. He’s more than matched by the brittle, brilliant Democratic Senator Ella Martindale (stage veteran Jan Maxwell), who once she’s bug-ified refuses to compromise on anything the Republicans are involved in. 

From there, there’s lots of political send-up and comment to be enjoyed, such as Wheatus encouraging the alarmingly right-wing ‘One Way’ pressure group – who want to include information about bomb making on their website – the Senate Intelligence Committee approving the use of torture on ‘suspected’ terrorists and the reliably screwy Wheatus trying to engineer a war with Syria through dubious witnesses in Senate hearings… Hmm. See what I mean about the reportage?

There’s a parallel The X Files-style plot driven by the memorably batty conspiracy theorist Gustav Triplett (Johnny Ray Gill, underplaying wonderfully), a scientific maverick who discovers the bugs are intelligent, lethal and organised. Lots of heads explode – strong, resistant personalities, emotion or alcohol can cause the combustion – and this part of the story serves up some of the broadest comedy in the show. In one sequence Laurel, already on the cusp of a charming Romeo and Juliet-style romance with Republican Chief of Staff Gareth Ritter (Aaron Tveit, again underplaying wonderfully), is saved from infection when Gustav actively engineers drunken sex between the pair in Laurel’s flat. Confused but open-minded, Gareth eventually joins the bug resistance.

The nimble mix of US political machinations and Invasion of the Body Snatchers conspiracy thriller was very engaging, but had probably run its course by the end of thirteen episodes: the invasion-by-possession idea (which, to be fair, was a familiar one anyway) would only really work once before it became repetitive, no matter what the setting (and there were plans for three more seasons where the bugs variously took on Wall Street, Silicon Valley and Hollywood). CBS did the decent, respectful creative thing and didn’t renew.

Having said that, I really admire what the Kings did with BrainDead (impressively, they were also responsible for the award-winning The American Wife). Alongside the serious political intent bound up with light repartee and gross-out humour, there’s their anarchic approach to the ‘Previously on…’ recap at the start of each episode. Over a montage of clips, the story exposition is sung by Jonathan Coulton, accompanied by an acoustic guitar. As the series progresses, his vocalising of events and strumming becomes noticeably more frantic (and funnier).

Perhaps the sharpest political point in the whole series is that when the bugs desert their Capitol Hill hosts leaving them with half-a-brain, the politicians continue their Washington careers as though nothing’s happened (covering the gaps in their skulls with an orange toupee, perhaps?)

Maybe seven months on is a bit late for me to flag BrainDead up as one to watch, but judging by what’s been going on in Washington since the Trump administration took over, you might be laughing even louder if you’re new to it.

Then again, it might make you even more terrified of where America’s heading.

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