BrainDead S01E01 “Playing Politics: Living Life In The Shadow Of The Budget Showdown – A Critique” REVIEW
Essential Plot Points:
- We open on a montage of news screens from 2016, and text saying that in 2016 it seemed like people were losing their minds. No one knew why… until now…
- We cut to a montage of Russian dash cam and traffic footage as a meteorite streaks overhead and smashes into a lake.
- Meanwhile, in Washington, Laurel Healy is at a reception for her brother, Senator Luke Healy. The pair flee the meeting and bond over their shared distrust of their political operator father. They do this while Luke is on the phone with a scientist desperate for his budget to be extended. A budget that he needs to research the Russian meteor his colleague is about to excavate from the lake. Forced to choose between an elite team and a pair of charmingly drunken vodka enthusiasts he makes the only choice he can.
- The divers go down, find the meteor and find fish arranged in perfect lines waiting for them…
- Back in DC, Laurel’s dad manipulates her into working for her brother. She calls him on his nonsense, pointing out he just wants someone in Luke’s office and she bargains him down to six months in the job in return for funding her movie.
- Her first day starts ten hours before a budget deadlock threatens to shut the government down. She’s dumped into Constituent Casework which, basically, is Big Block of Cheese Day from the West Wing forever. So much so that the guy who wants to give the senator a life-size chocolate dog is pretty much the most sensible person she talks to.
- Until she meets Ms Burke.
- Ms Burke is a polite, grounded sensible lady whose husband is not himself anymore. She explains that her husband has completely changed. He’s an engineer on the container ship Alba, and she found video on his phone of him and his colleagues opening a container to investigate a noise. They go in, find something has eaten its way out of a container. Something jumps at the screen and… the screen cuts out.
- Ms Burke is adamant that something happened in that container to her husband. A container whose delivery was signed off on by Luke’s office…
- Her next meeting is with Gareth Ritter, who works for Republican Senator Wheatus. He’s using Laurel as a back channel and if she gets him to agree to her boss’s demands in 90 minutes? The shutdown is off.
- Laurel starts her run. Literally she runs to the Capital Building, chases Luke to the restaurant he had dinner at and discovers Luke is having an affair with his chief of staff and Laurel’s boss.
- This is Laurel’s first day.
- To Laurel’s disgust, Luke and the democrats decide to let the deadline pass and put 100,000 government jobs at risk. Laurel slaps him, both for that and for cheating on his eight months pregnant wife. She calls Ritter back, tells him and he retorts that all the people out of work are her fault.
- Back at the lab, Doctor Daudier, the scientist studying the meteor, has discovered an odd honeycomb structure to the meteorite. He’s walked out of the building as the shutdown hits, and the meteor is left unsealed. Holes appear in it and a line of tiny ant-like creatures begin methodically marching out of the room and towards the Capital…
- At the office the next day, Luke sends everyone home aside from Scarlett and Laurel, selling his staff on it being the Republican’s fault. Laurel wants none of it but Luke is adamant that he needs her.
- She goes to the Alba to talk the captain on the bridge, trying to hear him over “You Might Think” by The Cars playing very loudly. The captain shuts her down and doesn’t even ask which crewman got sick. She asks for the cargo manifest from the other crewmember in the video with Burke and he claims not to know who Burke was. He also says he already gave the manifest to Gareth Ritter…
- She stalks over to Senator Wheatus’ office to confront him and finds a drunk, sleepy Wheatus and Ritter working the phones. The pair spar and reluctantly level with one another. It turns out that the Captain gave Ritter the same story.
- Word. For. Word. Identical.
- Ritter also tells her the senator is still up for the deal and Laurel and Luke discuss it over dinner. After Luke leaves, Laurel calls Ms Burke to update her. Burke’s husband overhears the call and covers up who is really on the other end.
- That night the Burkes cuddle in bed. Ms Burke gets increasingly uncomfortable and panics when she sees the ants marching towards her and into her ear. Her husband holds her still as they enter her skull and…
- The next day Ritter and Laurel meet again and confirm that Wheatus wants a deal. Luke shuts her down so she goes to their father and uses him as an end run.
- The Burkes come into the office as a follow up. Brianna Burke is completely different, serene and focused. Laurel is suspicious but her brother doesn’t care. Especially when dad calls…
- Later that day, Wheatus and Luke meet at a restaurant. While Laurel and Ritter wait for them, they bond (grumpily) over Laurel’s documentaries. The same song Laurel heard on the Alba – “You Might Think” by The Cars – plays and she notices people are watching them…
- After the meeting. Wheatus returns home and gets ready for bed. As he does so, the ants enter his room.
- And his skull.
- Wheatus sits upright, strains and the deflated sack of what looks a LOT like his brain falls out. He touches it, it bursts, he smiles and goes back to sleep.
- The next morning he gets up, puts “You Might Think” by The Cars on and heads into work. There he shuts down the deal that he and Luke agreed the previous night…
- At the Smithsonian, Laurel visits Doctor Daudier’s lab. She finds the meteor empty, the lab deserted and a seriously injured Doctor Daudier locked in the closet. Laurel calls him an ambulance and rides with him as the scientist screams about something in his head. Daudier screams and his head explodes.
- On the hill, Wheatus approaches Senator Spitz, a Democrat and offers him the world to cross the floor and to “make history”.
- Laurel, in shock, showers the blood off. She’s called into the office and discovers what’s happened: by crossing the floor, Spitz has shifted the balance of power. The Democrats are in the minority. They have to move. She apologises to Luke who’s positively jaunty. At long last he’s got the fight he’s been looking for. As he leaves, “What It Is” by The Cars starts playing on Scarlett’s computer…
Well this is a pleasant surprise! The West Wing with bodysnatching aliens! Count us in!
Despite the magnificently wordy episode title and the high-end politics, this is a light-on-its-feet opening episode. Laurel’s reasons for being where she is are nicely set up and the show does an excellent job of having her perceptions of Washington change as ours do. The revelations about her brother are especially well done and Danny Pino is having a whale of a time as a far skeevier version of his normally clean-cut on-screen persona.
The rest of the cast is great too, especially the always-reliable Tony Shalhoub. But this is Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Lauel) and Aaron Tveit (Ritter)’s show and it’s all the better for it. Winstead is one of the best leading actresses of her age and she brings her customary intelligence, humour and presence to every scene here. She’s talked about this show giving her the weirdest scenes of her career to film and, well, we have a pretty good idea that one of those is in this episode. It works though, thanks entirely to how well she sells what’s happening. Tveit is as good, a relatively unknown screen actor whose presence and timing gives every scene he has a charge. He and Winstead have real chemistry too and we’ve not had this much fun watching people verbally spar since The West Wing finished.
If the show fumbles, and it does a little, it’s in shifting gear to the SF elements. There’s the slightest sense of the script being so excited to get to the weird stuff that the tone doesn’t quite work. Jumping from frantic political machinations in the first half hour to a man washing a brain stain off his pillow in the second is jarring. There are three tones at work here; a snarky political show, a dead straight alien invasion movie and Exploding Brains Of Washington! and they don’t quite sit well together. Yet.
That being said there really is nothing else like this around right now and the two genres mesh surprisingly well. More importantly the show is huge, mischievous fun and clearly designed as a coping mechanism for this increasingly horrifying presidential campaign. So, if you miss The West Wing, are sick of politics or just really really love the Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers movies (like us), then this is for you.
- The entire cast. This may be the only overall cast that’s stronger than Outcast’s right now.
- The gradual curdling of the normal. The recurrent song motif, the repeated lines, the service workers watching Laurel and other little touches all neatly evoke the classic Bodysnatchers movies.
- The political side of things is actually really interesting here. Like once the Kings are done with The Good Wife spin-off I’d be happy to see a show without brain-eating alien ants set on Capital Hill from them.
- The just slightly maniacal Danny Elfman-esque music is lovely.
- Likewise the two crane teams gag is as broad as an eight lane highway but it’s still funny.
- “People always hurt.” One line and it tells you everything you need to know.
- “Oh Gareth, about that pro-choice rally. What are you wearing?” Winstead excels at this sort of arch verbal chess playing. Seeing her and Tveit spar is a joy.
- “No running in the Capital ma’am. No fast walking either!”
- “What’s that?”
“A chocolate dog.”
“I don’t know.”
- The tonal shifts are a little extreme. We go from high-end politicking to exploding brains to bodysnatchers so fast you can hear the gears squealing.
- Robert and Michelle King are best known for creating The Good Wife, and clearly excel at, “people in suits doing smart things” TV. Who knew they were this good at horror though?!
- Mary Elizabeth Winstead has a geek pedigree a mile long. She was, of course, Ramona Flowers in Scott Pilgrim vs The World and played Doctor Kate Lloyd in the deeply weird but actually really fun prequel to The Thing. She was also excellent in Live Free Or Die Hard, Death Proof and the fantastic 10 Cloverfield Lane. She’ll next be in this neck of the woods as the female lead in Swiss Army Man.
- Danny Pino is best known as Detective Scotty Valens from long running police procedural/series about the single most haunted city in human history, Cold Case. He was also a regular on Law & Order and is currently appearing on Scandal.
- Aaron Tveit is a massively successful Broadway star whose movie appearances include Les Miserables and Joseph Gordon-Levitt bike courier thriller Premium Rush. He had a recurrent role on Gossip Girl and was a lead on Graceland.
- Tony Shalhoub has appeared in Barton Fink, Men In Black, the entire Spy Kids series, gloriously ludicrous Thir13een Ghosts and Galaxy Quest. But he’ll always have a special place in people’s hearts as Monk from the TV show of the same name.
Review by Alasdair Stuart