When it comes to TV shows about D.C. politics in 2016, truth is stranger than fiction. Even when the fiction involves brain-eating bugs from space.
And that's the problem with BrainDead, CBS' new series, debuting tonight, about a Capitol Hill staffer (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) who is one of the only people in Washington to realize that something sinister is slowly overtaking D.C.'s political players.
It's an inspired idea—and one of the most intriguing concepts that broadcast TV has attempted for its own version of a Walking Dead-like story. But creators Robert and Michelle King's fatal mistake is in setting BrainDead during the real 2016 presidential election, instead of a fictionalized doppelganger.
The show opens with footage of Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders on the campaign trial, with a promise, "In the year 2016 there was a growing sense that people were losing their minds and no one knew why. Until now."
However, that's not true. Because the insanity that has been the 2016 presidential campaign is well underway before a meteor falls to Russia and unleashes the brain-eating bugs that turn humans into pod people.
But Trump and Clinton's regular presence on the cable TV networks in the background of most scenes is an ongoing reminder that not even an outlandish premise such as BrainDead's can measure up to many of the real-life antics we've seen so far during this election. Instead, you'll spend much of BrainDead wondering how Trump and Clinton would be navigating the show's events (including a government shutdown), and how Trump would propose doing away with the alien bugs. Perhaps he'd take a cue from one of CBS' previous summer series and construct a dome over the U.S. to keep any other meteors from falling to earth. In an election year where everything already seems ridiculously over the top, nothing is surprising, not even this kind of infestation.
The Kings, who also created The Good Wife, are usually so smart and savvy about their stories and characters, but the 2016 presidential election has been a rare blindspot for them. The biggest blunder of The Good Wife's final season was their decision to have Chris Noth's Peter Florrick pursue a presidential bid opposite the "real" Democratic candidates, none of whom could be a serious presence on the show for obvious reasons. They are repeating their mistakes here. A better option would have been to follow the lead of Scandal: the show found a Trump surrogate in Hollis Doyle (Gregg Henry), which allowed the characters to engage with him directly.
CBS is calling BrainDead a "comic-thriller," but the show has little of either. Most of the comic targets are safe and repetitive: there's a Rachel Maddow clone on the MSNBC surrogate who blames all of the political news on the Republicans, while its Fox News stand-in has a Megyn Kelly lookalike (played by Megan Hilty) who spends all her time skewering Democrats. And there are far too many on-the-nose references to people acting "insane" or "losing their minds."
The show isn't scary, though BrainDead's special effects team knows exactly what it's doing. Each episode is backed with nasty, gory effects—many of them variations on the infamous head exploding scene in Scanners—but even that starts to lose its impact by the third episode.
Winstead is a winning actress, but Laurel isn't developed much, especially compared to how fully-formed Julianna Margulies' Alicia Florrick was in The Good Wife. Laurel is a documentary filmmaker who is pulled back into D.C. politics to raise money for her documentary on Melanesian choirs, and handles "constituent casework" for her Senator brother (Danny Pino), the Democratic whip from Maryland. While dealing with ornery constitutions ("I don't have social security problems," says one. "You have social security problems."), she starts investigating when someone mentions that her husband—who worked as an engineer on the container ship that transported the meteor from Russia to the U.S.—isn't acting like himself.
She crosses paths with Gareth (Aaron Tveit), who works as legislative director for Republican Sen. Red Wheatus (Tony Shalhoub), and is looking to avoid a looming federal government shutdown.
There is an fascinating story here, taking the typical D.C. political dealing, backstabbing and giving it a comic horror spin, but BrianDead hasn't found it. That is, aside from one area, where the show is perfectly pitched: the madcap tone of the musical recaps that kick off each episode, beginning with the second week. They're funny, off the wall, and everything that BrainDead should be and isn't yet. Even if you skip the show, be sure to carve out a few minutes each week for the recap.
While all the broadcast networks have talked about the need to program year-round, CBS has put its money where its mouth is, spending lavishly on new summer series—Under the Dome, Extant and Zoo—with compelling visuals and story, which quickly fall off a cliff. (Under the Dome and Extant have been canceled, and Zoo has returned for Season 2 this summer, though its buzz has been almost nonexistent). I had high hopes that the Kings would break CBS' disappointing summer streak, but instead, the network will have to go back to the drawing board for summer 2017.