BrainDead, Season 1, Episode 1, "The Insanity Principle ..."
The Kings don't quite hit it out of the park with their first post-The Good Wife effort, but the pilot makes the series worth coming back to.
BrainDeadAirtime: Mondays, 10pm
Cast: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Danny Pino, Aaron Tveit, Tony Shalhoub
Subtitle: Season 1, Episode 1, "The Insanity Principle: How Extremism in Politics is Threatening Democracy in the 21st Century"
Air date: 2016-06-13
"Something weird is happening."
Oh, you're telling me, Ms. Laurel Healy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead).
First, let's set something straight: It's impossible -- actually impossible -- to not constantly hold BrainDead up to The Good Wife, if for only the first handful of episodes. This was a series that CBS had no problem touting as the follow up to Robert and Michelle King’s legal-soap masterpiece. This is essentially their first at-bat after hitting a walk-off home run in game seven of the World Series. You hope they drive in three runs with their follow-up performance at the plate, but the truth is, we should be happy even if they only merely get on base.
That’s kind of/sort of what they do in BrainDead’s first-ever episode, "The Insanity Principle: How Extremism in Politics is Threatening Democracy in the 21st Century" (so much for those concise episode titles, eh?). It's just intriguing enough to warrant interest in coming back, but the margin for error, moving forward, probably isn't nearly as wide as it was for, say, the final season of the Kings' most recent series. Television pilots aren’t ever any good, anyway, so it’s impossible to come to a longview conclusion when considering a value judgment, but with one episode in the can, it's hard not to wonder which roads this story might choose to take as it travels.
And about that story.
Laurel makes documentaries for a living -- the kind that appear so inane, it’s funny (just check her yodeling documentary, Yodeling). On some level, this might run parallel with the way that judges made The Good Wife so entertaining during its earlier seasons. Off beat. Occasionally sarcastic. Oftentimes smart. Uniquely vague in its commentary. Here's hoping we hear about one of her earlier films, a 17th-century art doc called Baa-roke!.
Anyway, her brother, Luke Healy (Danny Pino), is a democratic Senator and he wants his sister to come work for him. Or, well, both he wants this, and his dad wants this. Who’s their dad? Enter Dean, who is played by David Lee With A Beard (Zach Grenier). And … well … there goes all my hope for resisting the temptation to compare The Good Wife with BrainDead, but I digress. Dean wants Laurel to keep an eye on her brother. Her brother, who checks off all the Television Political Figures Boxes with aplomb (complete with banging a staffer on the side), seems happy enough just to be there. A government shutdown is looming, however, so insert drama right … about … here.
The shutdown becomes a stare-down between Luke and Red Wheatus (Tony Shalhoub, being all types of Tony Shalhoub), a Republican Senator with a staffer named Gareth (Aaron Tveit) who does all he can to try and broker a deal between the sides by … by … well, by approaching Laurel, someone who’s been on staff for about three-and-a-half minutes. Red's a lush, so the two politicians eventually meet over drinks and work out a deal. Laurel's a hero who has a fairly endearing rapport with her immediate rival, Gareth, and the world is saved.
Oh, but it isn’t.
During all this, parts of a Ukrainian meteor have been shipped to Washington and a worried scientist (Michael Potts - what up, Brother Mouzone from The Wire!) looks awfully worried for a handful of seconds, a handful of times. Ants, of all things, escape the box and the meteor, crawl out through a hole in a window, and the United States Of America will presumably never be the same again. This is proven when Breanna Burke (Nilaja Sun) initially approaches Laurel about how her husband is acting weird, but then walks that back a day later after her husband, Randall (Dominic Fumusa), holds her down so the ants can attack her while laying in bed.
Why is that? Because once the ants attack you, they take over your brain, and, as we learned in perhaps the most memorable scene of the week, they may or may not have the ability to push some or all of your brain out onto a pillow. While this also seems to mean that people offer vacant stares and an all-around glad-happy attitude toward living after the critters take over the humans’ heads, it weirdly (and funnily) has the opposite effect on Red, who, after spending his evening with the ants, turns on a Cars song in the morning and travels into work to take back the deal he reached with Luke the night before. In the middle of all this, the scientist, Dr. Daudier, is rushed away in an ambulance after the alien ants get into his head, only to have said head explode all over said ambulance.
Whew. Got all that? OK.
So, not only is it sad to see a cast member from The Wire bite the dust -- yet again -- but it’s also implied that this might have been the only guy in the BrainDead universe who could’ve answered some questions about all this nonsense. Laurel doesn't know much beyond the quote up top -- "Something weird is happening" -- but smart money says the next 12 episodes of this season will be spent with her finding out what "something weird" actually means. With any luck -- and because it's the Kings, you have to think this is a distinct possibility -- by the time we get through episode two, that question will be at least somewhat answered.
The most jarring thing about the series premiere of BrainDead is actually how similar it is to The Good Wife. Going into it, all you really heard was, "zombies!", "aliens!", "politics!", "satire!", and that was about it. But the pacing was eerily akin to the Kings' most recent work -- right down to the time it took to get to the opening credits, not to mention the classical music that rushed some opening sequences along. Grenier, for his part, provides a character not nearly as detestable as David Lee (or at least not yet), but he’s manipulative, nonetheless. And then there’s Misty Alise (Megan Hilty), who here takes on the role of News Anchor That Slept With Kurt McVeigh because, well, we all remember how The Good Wife ended, now don’t we?
All this is to say that for those of us The Good Wife fanatics, BrainDead can be equally compelling and frustrating. On one hand, you kind of had to hope that the Kings would try to approach this with a completely different feel. On the other, it's kind of nice to see a new world that these Masters Of Television have created because they have a very specific worldview that to some, is fabulous (I'm raising my hand). They’ve worked up enough intellectual equity to assure a true, honest-to-goodness chance from viewers, but now it's a matter of what they do with it.
So, something weird is, indeed, happening. Now, as for whether or not that translates into a sustained, absorbing television series … well, all we can do is wait and see.
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Just in case: the title here is a nod to The Cars song that appeared approximately one trillion times in this week’s episode.
Here's everything in which I've ever seen Mary Elizabeth Winstead act. Bobby. Smashed. The Spectacular Now. Kill The Messenger. That's it. That's the list. My point is that I’m still a little torn on her character here. I just can’t tell if she’s being snarky for snark’s sake. I just can’t tell if she’s supposed to be a badass. I just can’t tell if she’s supposed to be a conduit for comedy. I just can’t … you get it. She brings a different kind of energy to the screen, yet I don’t know if it's an energy that suits this series well. She was excellent in something like Smashed, opposite Aaron Paul, where it kind of felt like she was given bullet points and told to just go after it (and man, go after it, she did). This, though? I’m not so sure if the satirical thing works for her quite yet.
And speaking of the satirical thing … I don’t know, man. When The Good Wife wanted to be funny and poignant -- more so in its earlier seasons -- it was really funny and really poignant. As the series went on, though, the comedy felt just a little too forced every now and then, and even though you knew they were going for cheap laughs in certain spots, the endearing quality of those cheap laughs dissipated in time. This is all to say that when I heard the word "satire" attached to this project, my biggest fear was that the Kings would try to get too cute too often and the humor wouldn’t be all that good. After episode one, the jury's still out on as much, though I'll say that while I could appreciate the effort, nothing really made me laugh out loud. I also can't figure out if humor is going to be an essential element to the way everything unfolds. Hopefully, it won't matter one way or the other.
"How do we unpack this? Number 1, bipartisanship is dead. Number 2" … and then it cuts to black. It was the most The Good Wife moment of the episode and it was also the week’s best. I just love the whole "we're talking to you, viewer, through the prism of this plot" trick that the Kings have all but perfected through the years.
The next two episodes are directed by Jim McKay, whose credits include … you guessed it … an episode from The Wire, continuing the Robert and Michelle King tradition of hiring The Wire alums. This brings me great joy. Dude also has credits for In Treatment, which I still think was one of the most underrated-and-overlooked television series of the last 20 years.
OK, we get it, guys. Extremism in politics is bad.
So … thoughts on the brain-out-of-ear scene? It was the most explicit the episode got, and on some level, it felt gratuitous. Like, honestly. Did that need to happen? There are better ways to stick to the requisite sci-fi effects that will obviously need to be utilized throughout this series. Icky is the right word to describe it -- and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that -- it just felt a little too "look at what we can do!"-ish.
Do we honestly need all the clips of Hillary, Trump, and Bernie? Besides: What’s going to happen if there's a season two, and the Kings don't have a presidential race off of which they can play when it comes to commenting on modern day politics? Will we just receive soundbites of President Trump spliced in between gigantic ant hills?
Things I'm interested in: Dean. A potential Laurel and Gareth romance. What number two is. The absurdly long episode titles. Who from The Wire might show up. Why Red Wheatus doesn't appear to be a zombie after the ants paraded through his brain. Laurel's next movie. Dr. Daudier's past. How Ridley Scott got involved in this. How many more episodes Robert King will direct.
Things I'm not interested in: Breanna Burke's marriage. Luke Healy. Real-world news clips. A fake-world government shutdown. "In the year 2016 there was a growing sense that people were losing their minds … and no one knew why … until now." Luke’s affair. The origins of Red Wheatus's drinking problem. Which political party holds the majority in the Senate. Gareth's true intentions. Ants.