Television

BrainDead: Season 1, Episode 7 - "The Power of Euphemism ..."

Colin McGuire

For an up-and-down debut season, BrainDead stumbles yet again as the story's direction stalls.


BrainDead

Airtime: Sundays, 10pm
Cast: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Danny Pino, Aaron Tveit, Tony Shalhoub
Subtitle: Season 1, Episode 7 - "The Power of Euphemism ..."
Network: CBS
Air date: 2016-08-07
Amazon

"Torture? I hardly knew her."

Yes, leave it to the crawl of a fake cable news network to produce this week's lead-in quote. God forbid BrainDead's writers give any actual character any actual thing to say that’s irrefutably memorable this time around. Instead, let's go with a cheap joke displayed on the screen of a TV that's broadcasting a cheap knockoff of Fox News.

Sound annoyed? Maybe, but that's probably because there's good reason. In this first season's seventh episode, "The Power of Euphemism: How Torture Became a Matter of Debate in American Politics", it's hard to care. Plain and simple. It's hard to care. Coming off the high of last week -- which came off the low of the week before -- you had to wonder where the story would go; you had to wonder if this series could keep its forward momentum.

Instead, what we have is an hour of television that, ostensibly, doesn't move the overall narrative anywhere. Red Wheatus (Tony Shalhoub) decides he wants to take down Laurel (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), which I suppose you could argue was vaguely foreshadowed in episode six when those two had their first real oh-I-don't-like-you interaction. To accomplish this, he unpackages the whole "why are heads exploding" situation and puts pressure on the FBI to find answers, all the while insinuating that Laurel knows something everyone else doesn't.

And how does he go about it? Well, naturally, he infests an innocent intern with ants, takes him to the gym, and leads him down the Road To Head Explosion in front of FBI Director Louis Marchant (Jeremy Shamos). The FBI then hears Red out about the cause for this mess being bioterrorism, somehow finds reason to connect Laurel to Islamic extremists, and then promptly spends the next 45 minutes threatening to torture our main protagonist. Spoiler alert: Right in the nick of time, the lead torturer J.K. Cornish (Kurt Fuller, AKA Judge Peter Dunaway, AKA this week's "Oh, it's so nice to see someone from The Good Wife pop up again!" vice) stops the proceedings because a vote arguing the merits of torture becomes … well … let's go with "weird".

It's weird because it turns out Gustav (Johnny Ray Gill) and Rochelle (Nikki M. James) figure out how to communicate with those who are ant infested and, in a gag that starts out funny and endearing and ends somewhere else, can force the half-aliens to inexplicably run into walls and raise their hands. This wouldn't be that big of a deal if people didn't vote on laws by raising their hands. Get it? So, when the Republicans vote for a resolution that would ultimately force Laurel to be tortured/interrogated/violated/whatever you want to call it, it appears as though they vote two times: one, the way the ants want them to vote, and two, a product of Gustav and Rochelle's puppeteering. It creates confusion. Laurel must be released.

This all comes after Laurel's Democratic Senator brother Luke (Danny Pino) does all he can to help get her out of the FBI's claws after he realizes what's going on. It should also be noted that Luke starts to realize what's going on via the help of Republican aide Gareth (Aaron Tveit, who I'm liking more each week), whose Object of Affection right now is, of course, Laurel. It might sound tangled, but it's not nearly as convoluted as it seems. Promise.

It all amounts to a day in the life of BrainDead. Nothing more, really, and nothing less, really. In fact, it's so much of a tick-tock formula that by the time big, bad, J.K. Cornish drops Laurel off after that whole potential torture ordeal, he even suggests that he take her home and not back to work. Going through all that in a single day, he argues, he would need a day off himself.

Cute.

The only real substantial takeaway from this week comes within the last 90 seconds of the episode, when Luke and Laurel's father, Dean (Zach Grenier) … well, let's put it this way: Gustav's homemade smartphone zombie/ant tracker sings like a space-bird now whenever it's around Dean. The implication? Oh, you guessed it: Dean has been infected and/or ant-controlled this whole time! Or, well, he contracted the critters at some point. But in hindsight -- considering his weird multi-monitor secret hideaway control room thing-y-ma-doobie -- one would have to assume that perhaps he's been the one at the center of this all along. Either way, it's another point for Team Ant Invaders.

But … meh. It's like, now what? Gustav, Luke, Gareth, Laurel, and Rochelle take on the task of saving the world? Maybe Dean's infestation isn't revealed to the other main characters for another few episodes and he does some damage in the interim? Maybe Laurel jumps? Luke, perhaps?

If anything, this week's episode exposed BrainDead as a series with a point that's difficult in which to invest. Sometimes, it goes for cheap laughs; sometimes, it even gets them. Sometimes, it tries to be smart, making vague pot-shot comments on a fucked-up American political system; sometimes, it succeeds in making you think. Unfortunately, more often than not, it kind of feels like an aimless attempt at doing something wacky that can't figure out if it wants to scare, educate, influence, giggle, condescend, gross out, or provoke wonder. We spent an entire hour this week knowing that there was no way CBS was going to allow a television show depict a woman being water-boarded over its air, yet for some reason, the BrainDead staff kept insisting that we should Believe It's Going To Happen (damn it!).

Where we go next isn't necessarily the problem. The problem is the notion that the story is beginning to feel too predictable, or, even worse, too boring. With the twist surrounding Dean, we can at least be intrigued enough to come back next week, but considering how up-and-down this series deals with cliffhangers and payoffs … well, we shouldn't hold our breath for any type of satisfying development. Besides: If the most memorable line from a television episode comes from a cheap joke displayed on the screen of a TV that's broadcasting a cheap knockoff of Fox News, the least of that television episode's concerns should be brain-eating ants.

So … torturous? Well, it hardly knew… .

You Might Think

Can we just be done with one, Mr. Anthony Onofrio (Charlie Semine)? The way he approached the whole he-attacked-Laurel thing was super creepy and super … not good. Here's a guy who actually went after a woman, and now he's jumping out in front of the lie by turning the blame around while talking to other FBI officials? It just felt too real-life-abuse-ish for comfort, and considering how this is a series that's supposed to revel in the fact that it's so unlike real life, the moment played horribly. There's good uncomfortable and bad uncomfortable. This was the latter.

So, let's take time to reflect on all The Good Wife alums so far. We've seen Megan Hilty, Kurt Fuller, Zach Grenier, Nikki M. James, Glen Fleshler, Wayne Duvall, Michael Esper, Marcus Ho, and … and … I know I'm missing some, right? Either way, the novelty of picking out The Good Wife cast appearances is quickly becoming the most interesting aspect of BrainDead. And that's not great.

Why we gotta pick on cherry blossoms like this?

I mentioned it up top, but I'm really starting to warm to Aaron Tveit's Gareth. He oftentimes seems like the most levelheaded character around, and his loyalty to Laurel, at this point, can't be questioned. It's endearing and it's fun to see him sort of pine after her, especially now that she's come out with it and let him in on the secret that she thinks she's going insane. Speaking of that …

… I liked the way the episode opened, literally, where last week's episode left off. For an hour without much to value, that was a neat trick (and, it should be noted, that it was a neat trick on That Other Show Robert and Michelle King created as well). I'm happy we got to see precisely how Gareth responded to Laurel's explanations and bat-shit crazy world view. Also: the touch with the guy listening to The Cars song ended that first sequence strongly.

So, about Dean, eh? I'll be honest: I never considered it. That might sound naive, but for some reason, I kind of started to believe that he might end up being the one who orchestrated the battle against the ants at the end of the day, and not the one who actually organized the ant invasion to begin with. I still like the character (I guess), but you have to worry that he's going to become a little one-note now, no? His mystique made him attractive; now that we know what he's about, will that lack of mystique compromise the appeal of the character?

Along those same lines, why couldn't that former army general publicly vote in Luke's favor again? I don't think that was ever explained. Perhaps Dean got to him?

No way you thought that intern was living to see act three, right?

Things I'm interested in: A potential Rochelle/Gustav romance. Why the ants can fly all of a sudden. Red's workout schedule. Gareth's intentions. If Dean can be saved. If Dean wants to be saved. Politicians running into walls aimlessly. The deal with the army general. Where Luke is living. Rochelle being smarter than Gustav.

Things I'm not interested in: The definition of torture. Anthony Onofrio. Half-parodies of half-assed cable news networks. More people being ant infested. Politicians raising their hands. Anything, ever, on CSPAN 2. Luke Healy using the phrase, "Raise holy hell". What the ants want to eat. The FBI. How much water constitutes water-boarding.

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