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BrainDead: Season 1, Episode 2, "Playing Politics..."

Colin McGuire

The ants keep coming, the heads keep exploding, and episode two begins the process of a series getting into its groove.


Airtime: Mondays, 10pm
Cast: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Danny Pino, Aaron Tveit, Tony Shalhoub
Subtitle: Season 1, Episode 2 - "Playing Politics: Living Life in the Shadow of the Budget Showdown -- A Critique”
Network: CBS
Air date: 2016-06-20

"What happened to everything? Why does nobody think that way anymore?"

Because ants, Laurel (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Because ants.

Or, at least that seems to be the point that creators Robert and Michelle King are trying to prove with BrainDead’s second episode, "Playing Politics: Living Life in the Shadow of the Budget Showdown -- A Critique". While our leader waxes poetic about how much the United States of America has devolved on a darkened night at the Lincoln Memorial with her latest friend, a dying girl with cancer named Annie (Ripley Sobo), you can't help but both grimace at the lazy attempt at poignancy and think, "Well, yeah. That's probably true".

Either way, it doesn’t play like you might think the Kings want it to. Instead of being smart and heartfelt, it comes off as generic and plastic. It also highlights what’s becoming increasingly clear when it comes to The Point Of It All: Perhaps we're to believe that the current real-life political climate is not merely a sign of contentious political times, and rather, the craziness of modern day politics can be attributed to a far off ant-alien galaxy.

I mean, what’s the difference? It's all fucked up anyway, right?

Scoff if you want, but it appears that BrainDead is becoming one big process of holding one big mirror up to one big country that can't get its shit together. Oh, you think it's really so crazy that ants can make politicians dig in their heels and handle themselves with such moronically selfish divisiveness? The joke's on you, Americans, because that's actually happening right now anyway … and this is without the ants!. What a time to be alive, friends. What a time to be alive.

But back to the plot. This week finds our main democratic players failing before failing again. Senator Luke Healy (Danny Pino) wants to get his majority back, so he tasks his staffer sister to find out some information about which Republican may or may not be willing to cross party lines. She thinks she discovers this information while attending something called Tax Prom (which is so stupid, you have to believe this is a real thing, right?) and canoodling with her kind of/sort of rival/inevitable lover, Gareth (Aaron Tveit). He writes down the phone number of a Republican who might be up for going over to the dark side, she calls the number, finds out the name, passes it along to her brother, and then the Democratic party is saved from now until forever (and ever, amen).

Or, well, that is, until it isn't. In a twist that’s so unbelievably predictable, it's hard not to wonder if the Kings ever even had a say in Will Gardner's (Josh Charles) fate on that other show they once ran, the phone number was a set-up. The Republican they were hoping to poach agrees to be poached before ultimately turning up on television, loudly announcing how happy he is to be a republican. This, of course, is all thanks to the work of Red Wheatus (Tony Shalhoub), who continues to be ant-infested, but also continues to be alive.

The same can't be said for a chess player. In what is easily the week’s most intriguing development, we are introduced to Gustav Triplett (Johnny Ray Gill), a chess master gleefully going from opponent to opponent until he discovers that one of his adversaries has goop in his ear. He rushes him to the hospital, the hospital runs tests, and for the second week in a row, we have an exploded head on our hands (side: so is this going to be a thing now?).

This, of course, begs the following question: why are some heads exploding while others are just zombie-fied? A quick guess might go a little like this: The two exploded heads belonged to unusually smart people -- a scientist and a chess genius -- while the non-exploded heads belonged to everyone involved in politics. If we're to believe that whole "holding up a mirror to the idiocy of the country" theory I floated earlier in this review, perhaps the point here is that politicians are too dumb to have the ants explode their brains. Oh, Robert and Michelle King. How you love your cynicism.

And, oh, how Gustav loves his conspiracy theories. To know this guy is on the case is reassuring. On some level, his introduction takes the place of Dr. Daudier (Michael Potts), who presumably was going to be the only person who had answers to this mess before his own brain went ka-boom. Speaking of Daudier, we meet his daughter Rochelle (Nikki M. James, another The Good Wife transplant) this week, and she seems to know a thing or two about a thing or two. So, between Gustav, Laurel, Rochelle, and a new-found FBI agent, we can now begin to assume that The Team To Save The World is being assembled. At the end of the day, that's a good thing.

Not so good for the family business, however, is the fact that Luke is now out as his party’s whip. The death blow came after Laurel got played. Yet even though this isn't the best development for the Family Healy, both brother and sister can thank their alien-infested stars that they managed to dodge the ants who went marching all up in their shit (more on this below). Luke, attempting to canoodle with Zombie Scarlett (Paige Patterson), evades the critters after feeling dismissed as a lover while Laurel simply steps on a few before heading out for the day.

Where it leaves us now is at a place where we can finally begin to settle into a groove. This week’s episode was better than last week's episode, if only because it sets the pieces in place for what may or may not be answers to some of the questions we undoubtedly have. Not only is there hope from a narrative standpoint, but there’s a distinct tone that emerged this week that, in its own way, became much more endearing than last week’s outline. Yes, this is an indictment on modern day politics, and yes -- especially with a final, affecting sequence of a friend trapped in a bathroom about to be overtaken with ants -- this is designed to be horror-ish. This week, however, the bad humor wasn't as present. This week, the message became more clear.

Now we wait to see how long it takes for Laurel, along with her growing pack of investigative characters, can figure out exactly what happened to everything, and exactly why nobody thinks that way anymore.

You Might Think

If each episode offers at least one head exploding and at least one excerpt of that Cars song … I'm cool with that.

Two problems this week: 1. Am I going crazy, or when Laurel went to call that Republican senator, she only dialed the last four numbers, as seen on her iPhone? and 2. Where did the ants go after invading her house? I’m going to assume that she went to work, came home and then … slept? Hung out? Read in bed? If she did any of those things (most prominently sleep), how did those ants not get to her? Are we to assume that they just kept marching from her apartment to someone else's? That's gotta be the biggest misstep of the series so far, right?

Ahhh, so that's why the Kings introduced the ultimately irrelevant Monica Timmons into The Good Wife universe! It was Nikki M. James's audition for BrainDead! Duh. Along those same lines … hey, do you recognize Ella Pollack? Yeah, she had a two-episode run in The Good Wife as Camilla Vargas. And the tally continues.

Oh, wait. So Red Wheatus is Southern now? Didn't hear an accent last week, but there were a couple moments of Tony-Shalhoub-doing-a-Southern-accent this week that can only be described as very Frank Underwood-ish. Like, "Oh, that’s right! I forgot, this guy is supposed to be kind of Southern!" says The Actor. And then, every now and then, you hear a drawl. Come on, Shalhoub. You can do better.

The notion that all the ant-infested people are obsessed with juice cleanses and shots of wheatgrass delights me to no end and makes me laugh.

"We don't really talk to each other. We just contradict each other." Wise words.

Speaking of that, watching Gareth and Laurel dance, I could only think one thing: Looking at people dance during anything -- movie and/or television -- never works. The people involve look awkward. They seem to have absolutely no rhythm. There’s utterly no chemistry. And nobody ever seems to care. I move to put a moratorium on all dancing in television or cinema that isn’t connected to a musical. For as much we’re supposed to believe that those two are falling for each other -- and that tax prom sequence was cute -- putting them on the dance floor together just didn’t help.

Still not sold on the musical recap to open the episode. While I'll admit that I felt like I learned so much from it, which makes me question both how stupid I am and how vague the pilot was.

Things I’m interested in: Dean (now even more so than last week). Gustav. Rochelle. Which sibling will be successfully attacked by ants first. How the rest of that final scene played out. All the Internet search results for "exploding heads" that appear to be so easy to find. Luke saying, "Only feel if it makes you effective". If Laurel/Gareth/FBI Agent is the new Alicia/Will/Peter. Butch (Happy Anderson). Ella Pollack.

Things I’m not interested in: Ants (still, but I can feel that changing). That government shutdown. Abby Summers (Brooke Bloom). Gareth. Red’s origin. Tax Prom's song choices (although they did indeed make so much sense). Tax Prom, period. Annie. Annie’s dad. Luke’s status in the Democratic party.


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