In BrainDead—a satirical B-movie of a TV show from Robert and Michelle King, the creators of The Good Wife—space bugs (the show’s term) are taking over politicians’ minds. “Taking over” is perhaps too polite. These little critters, who arrived on Earth in the meteor that exploded over Russia in 2013 and are related to the indigenous (to Earth) screw-worm, crawl into their victims’ ears. Soon thereafter, the person’s head either explodes like a water balloon full of spaghetti sauce or their brain comes scooting out the other ear, glistening and intact, as easily as a drop of pesky swimming pool water. In the latter case, the bugs perform a personality overhaul. The possessed come to hate alcohol, love wheatgrass smoothies and the Cars “You Might Think,” and turn into inflexible political extremists.
BrainDead’s premise is a dark joke. “In 2016,” the show begins, “there was a growing sense that people were losing their minds and no one knew why, until now.” The only way to explain what’s going on in Washington, D.C., is idiotic alien possession in which our elected officials haven’t just metaphorically lost their minds, they have really lost their minds: Like, someone could find said minds and turn them in to Capitol security. The space bugs eat brains, but the infected act more like they have been body-snatched than like they’ve been zombified. They don’t lurch but become uptight and narrow-minded, stuck on their talking points, implacable in their dopey, damaging, dronelike opinions, insensible to compromise.
Witness to the outbreak is Laurel Healy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a documentary filmmaker from a political family who is bribed by her father (Zach Grenier, The Good Wife’s David Lee, who seems like a zealot, even when playing a cynic) to go to work for her brother, Luke (Danny Pino), a charming, caddish Democratic senator. Laurel is tasked with constituent outreach and soon meets a woman whose husband, fresh off a meteor-lugging container ship from Russia, has started behaving strangely. Laurel begins investigating and is soon part of a small group of people who have noticed that heads are exploding and a lesser Cars song is playing everywhere. Meanwhile, the Republicans have shut down the government, a situation that seems like it will come to a swift bipartisan solution, until Red Wheatus (Tony Shalhoub), a drunk Republican senator, loses his mind—his brain is red and glistening, like a cherry jellybean—and becomes a polite, focused, sober and intractable partisan maniac. The bug soon spreads across the aisle. The government may never get turned back on.
At a D.C. party, Laurel and her combative crush Gareth Ritter (Aaron Tveit), Wheatus’ aide, both lament the absence of idealists in politics. And it is true that in the world of BrainDead, possessed Republicans and Democrats are not concerned with principles so much as beating the other side. But the Kings, cynical pragmatists through and through, are not suggesting that ideology is what’s missing from Washington so much as ideological flexibility. D.C. has been fueled by the oleaginous for decades: It’s the rigid and fanatical, with their lack of humor and disdain for the loosening touch of alcohol (so that’s why D.C.’s bipartisan dinner party culture really died!) who we really have to fear.
BrainDead is zippy and witty, a thinking person’s beach read, but there is something not quite enough about the premise. Our political culture is so crazy it is nearly un-satirizable. BrainDead knows this: Its point—not a joke at all—is that a Washington infested with extraterrestrial creepy-crawlies is indistinguishable from a pest-free D.C. The show is textured by all-too-real background insanity. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are running for president, and Trump’s words keep echoing through the show on cable news channels. When Laurel and Gareth are observed together, a Democrat and Republican flirting, it is considered offensive, like the Montagues and Capulets cavorting for all to see. When a Democratic senator wonders why “we always have to be the party of grown-ups,” she is met with a resounding cheer from her allegedly sane colleagues. When there is alien goo dripping out of a Republican’s ear canal, a Democrat exclaiming that “The Republicans have lost their minds!” becomes a slapstick double-entendre. But the extra layer of meaning is cheeky, not profound. Space bugs are the easy way out—tell me how we body-snatched ourselves.