Review: BrainDead 1×1 (US: CBS; UK: Amazon)

Brain-eating alien ants take over the US government

In the US: Mondays, 10/9c, CBS
In the UK: Airs on Amazon

Sometimes, I wish it were summer all year round. Not because of the weather or vacations, but because it’s when the US networks decide to relax their formulae and let loose a little.

Take CBS. Most of the time it’s the home of nasty, unfunny comedies (eg Mike and Molly, Mom) and a neverending stream of formulaic procedurals (eg Code Black, Elementary, Blue Bloods). Then come’s the summer, it lets down its hair and (ironically) acts like it’s on spring break, giving us the likes of Under The Dome, Extant and Zoo. True, none of these have actually been much good, but at least they’re different, at least they’re trying to shake things up – I’d much rather have them than yet another Criminal Minds or NCIS spin-off.

So what does CBS have for us this summer? Savour this moment. Brace yourself. You’re going to enjoy this.

This summer, CBS is giving us BrainDead, a sci-fi political satire in which the intractable problems of the US Congress are revealed to be the result of alien ants taking over the politicians by eating their brains and forcing them to listen to The Cars’ ‘You Might Think‘.

Don’t you just love summer?

Here’s a trailer. Minor spoilers, etc, after the jump.

BrainDead is CBS’s new comic-thriller set in the world of Washington, D.C. politics. The series, starring Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Danny Pino, Aaron Tveit, Tony Shalhoub, Nikki M. James and Johnny Ray Gill comes from Robert and Michelle King, creators and executive producers of The Good Wife.

BrainDead follows a young, fresh-faced Hill staffer (Winstead) getting her first job in Washington, D.C. and discovering two things: The government has stopped working, and something mysterious is happening to a growing number of Congressmen and Hill staffers.

Is it any good?
Well, it’s not The West Wing – what is? – but it’s easily the best CBS summer show in years and entertaining in a Mars Attacks kind of way.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Scott Pilgrim – see if you can spot the reference in the episode) stars as the kind of die-hard liberal who’d rather be making documentaries about choirs on the Solomon Islands than doing anything useful with her life. Forced by her father to work with her shag-hard Democratic senator brother Danny Pino (Cold Case, L&O:SVU) in exchange for movie funding, she first has to deal with constituents (cf ‘big block of cheese day‘), where she discovers that people are starting to acting strangely nicely (cf Invasion of the Body Snatchers). The rest of the episode follows her investigations, as well as the political wranglings with her Republican counterpart Aaron Tveit (Graceland) and his boss Tony Shalhoub (Monk, Men in Black, Galaxy Quest), as one by one, more and more people become more normal and well behaved, yet more extremist and addicted to The Cars.

The show’s a slightly uneasy combination of horror (yes, you do see the brains coming out, heads exploding, etc), thriller (will our heroine and heroes lose their brains to the ants?), topical comedy (bipartisanship failing at every turn) and whimsical look at the less glamorous sides of DC politics (shrimp buffets and all). Not everything sits together well, but it’s mostly well done and is a pretty decent attempt to do something novel, funny and interesting. Winstead is a very engaging lead, while Shalhoub is seemingly effortlessly funny as always (okay, not in We Are Men). Surprisingly, it’s least funny when it gets political, funniest when it’s looking at the effects of politics, petty rules and regulations, or when it ventures into physical comedy. 

The show slightly loses its impact by pulling punches, implying from the outset that nothing we’re seeing now in politics is the result of the arrival of the ants, as they’ve only recently arrived (if only the show had taken on Trump…). But there is some critique of politics, such as when Shalhoub has an interesting speech about how bipartisanship has broken down because he just never gets to speak to Democrats any more. 

Generally, then, a bit b-movie but a bright spot in this summer’s schedule and certainly one to give a try.


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.

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