'BrainDead': a comic thriller about politicians and bugs

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

NEW YORK (AP) — At last! An acceptable explanation for Washington gridlock and other Beltway perversities: Bugs are eating politicians' brains.

"BrainDead" , a new CBS comic-horror-thriller premiering Monday at 10 p.m. EDT, accomplishes the near-impossible. It captures the madness of Congress with wry humor, startling timeliness (Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail are seen on office TV screens) and more insight than the typical cable-news yackfest. It stays lighthearted (even an occasional victim's head exploding is funny), yet, awash in cynicism from both sides of the aisle, it has serious points to make.

The series tackles what it dubs "The Insanity Principle": the political extremism threatening democracy. This is at a moment when political humorists bemoan how the insanity of governance has outpaced their ability to ape it. But "BrainDead" manages to out-burlesque today's real-life Beltway burlesque while grounding the saga sufficiently to make its bugs-from-outer-space theory seem as plausible as any.

Of course, fans of "The Good Wife," the law-firm drama that recently wrapped after seven splendid seasons, need know only one thing to recognize that "BrainDead" is worth their attention: It comes from the same creative team, Robert and Michelle King. To judge from the first three "BrainDead" episodes furnished for review, the Kings still reign supreme.

As with "The Good Wife," its cast is large and terrific. Notable are Tony Shalhoub ("Monk") as rascally Republican Senator Red Wheatus; Aaron Tveit as Wheatus' crafty chief of staff, Gareth Ritter; Danny Pino ("Cold Case") as ambitious Democratic Senator Luke Healy; and Mary Elizabeth Winstead, perfect as his sister, Laurel, an idealistic documentary filmmaker who is drawn into the political swirl despite her grave misgivings.

It is Laurel, anything but a political insider, who first detects that, in her words, "things are changing" inside Washington. And not for the better. People around her are suddenly behaving out of character.

"My friend became a political fanatic overnight," Laurel marvels. "Last week she was writing a novel. This week she's raving about Trump."

What Laurel doesn't know — yet — is that legions of ant-like creatures have invaded the ear-hole of her friend for a bite and caused the transformed personality that has her so puzzled.

She continues to encounter strange patterns. Over and over she finds people are listening to the Cars' 30-year-old song declaring "You may think I'm crazy." Strangers stare at her. She means to get to the bottom of this mystery.

Meanwhile, Republicans and Democrats are at loggerheads over budget legislation. Despite ingenious efforts by Laurel to aid her brother in breaking the impasse, the federal government shuts down.

For this, each side blames the other while the media make hay, such as on "Doublespeak," a cable-news talk show where politicians come to swap insults.

It's an all-too-familiar plague portrayed in fanciful, fresh terms, which should make "BrainDead" a summer-long treat.

But by the end of its 13-episode run, will the bugs be stopped?

Will bipartisanship be reached on Capitol Hill, if only between Laurel and her across-the-aisle sparring partner, Gareth, with whom she promptly strikes romantic sparks?

And will viewers be dismayed to realize anew that, while things are changing eerily for characters on "BrainDead," no change is imminent in real-life Washington — not even from bugs?


EDITOR'S NOTE — Frazier Moore is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. He can be reached at fmoore@ap.org and at http://www.twitter.com/tvfrazier. Past stories are available at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/frazier-moore