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CBS' 'BrainDead' Takes a Shot at Being D.C. Serio-Comic
June 13, 2016  | By Ed Bark

The timing is right but also daunting for CBS’ BrainDead (Monday, June 13 at 10 p.m. ET), a considerable departure from the norm for a network that’s long been up to its neck in crime series and “traditional” sitcoms with tag-along laugh tracks.

It’s a 13-episode, Washington, D.C.-set “comic-thriller” that arrives in tandem with Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton lobbing verbal grenades at one another while their shared “unfavorable” ratings remain sky high. Created by The Good Wife team of Robert King and Michelle King, BrainDead seeks to capture the federal government’s ongoing cacophony and phoniness in ways that channel The Twilight Zone, Veep, Dr. Strangelove and even Mars Attacks!.

In short, no one is really honorable -- except for perhaps struggling documentary filmmaker Laurel Healy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Her father, Dean Healy (Zach Grenier), a longtime Democratic Party powerbroker, has seduced her from L.A. to D.C. by offering to fund Laurel’s unfinished film in return. She agrees to a six-month sabbatical by joining the staff of her brother, Luke Healy (Danny Pino, right), the Democrats’ less than idealistic Senate Whip. (The Luke and Laurel combo no doubt is a wink in the direction of Luke and Laura from General Hospital).

But first comes a crazy-quilt prologue. Rhetoric from both Trump and Clinton is part of an opening montage that also includes a meteor mysteriously crash-landing in Russia before being shipped to the United States for some sort of scientific inspection. But this goes badly when a big gang of ant-like bugs escape from the shipping crate and eventually begin invading the brains of various Washingtonians. Hey, it could happen.

CBS made the first three episodes available for review. And one of the better things about this series is its ongoing updates via clever Gilligan’s Island-esque sing-along lyrics preceding each new chapter.

Better yet is Winstead’s assured, appealing performance as a D.C. tenderfoot thrust into a new world of mystery and political polarization that escalates once those bugs begin infesting and in some cases, exploding the heads of their prey. Those who remain among the living otherwise have all stopped drinking and share a fondness for The Cars’ 1984 hit “You Might Think.”

The cast also accommodates Tony Shalhoub as influential Republican senator Red Wheatus and Aaron Tveit (left with Shalhoub) as his one of his top aides, Gareth Ritter. Johnny Ray Gill plays Gustav Triplett, a young scientist who aligns with Laurel to fight this invasion of the creepy crawlies. And Jan Maxwell is Sen. Ella Pollack, a dowager Democrat whose alliances shift and swerve according to what the voices in her head are telling her.

Also at center stage is a government shutdown brought on by rampant divisiveness and blame-gaming on the part of both parties. Their principal forum for talking over and through one another is TV’s DoubleSpeak with Claudia Monarch (Beth Malone).

BrainDead begins finding its way in Episode 3, which is a good sign of progress instead of regress. If the series runs its entire 13-episode course, it will weave its satirical/serious storyline through the national party conventions and beyond. Unfortunately, the principal challenge of such fiction is to be stranger than the unfolding truths at hand in this bizarre election season.

BrainDead looks to be making a game go of it anyway while Winstead’s Laurel bracingly gives the series a core stability. There she is, navigating the corridors of power, consorting with “the enemy” and hoping to keep her own head from exploding via either a bug invasion or the insanity of what Washington has become. Maybe most of us have seen more than enough already. But I’d still give BrainDead a try while also applauding CBS for playing around with its basic DNA.


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