Film and TV

BrainDead Is a JibJab: CBS' Political-Zombie Drama Fumbles Its Politics but Is Still Promising

A while back I cracked a dumb joke about all our presidential candidates being corrupt. My wife hit back with this: "You're a JibJab!" She referred, of course, to the animated viral sensations of America circa 2005 or 2008, the once wildly popular political-parody videos that, in the interest of winning the greatest number of clicks possible, make equal fun of what Americans myopically think of as “both sides.” In a JibJab, like a Jay Leno monologue, Sarah Palin is precisely as ridiculous as Barack Obama, who is just as big a clown as Arnold Schwarzenegger. It's satire minus everything that makes satire effective: point­ of ­view, outrage, truth telling.

After four episodes, I think it's safe to say that, with BrainDead, Robert and Michelle King have made a JibJab, albeit a splattery, invigorating one, appealingly acted and witty in its horror and romantic elements. It even opens, each week, with a folksy goof of a show tune, with a singer recapping the earlier episodes. The satiric premise — that space ants have crawled into the earholes of D.C. politicos and made them splenetically partisan — feels like the headlines of three years ago, a throwback to the days of Tea Party screaming and government shutdowns over the raising of the debt ceiling. The Kings are careful to match every ant-brained conservative with an ant-brained liberal, lest any viewers feel their own political “side” lampooned even an ounce more than the other.

Still, like The Good Wife, the Kings' legal/political drama, BrainDead often pleases even when its grandest ambitions fail it. The Kings excel at making clear and amusing the complex work of manipulating our institutions of power. We're introduced to the machinations with naive liberal Laurel (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who takes a summer job listening to the complaints of the constituents of her brother (Danny Pino), a Democratic senator, and soon faces high-stakes congressional intrigue, a rash of exploding heads and even the romantic interest of a conservative (Aaron Tveit).

Winstead winningly holds all this together, her face as expressive as the work of a good caricaturist but also soulful and stirring. You always know precisely what Laurel is feeling, regardless of which genre the show has slipped into, and Winstead can catch you up in feeling it, too, especially in her scenes of annoyance or flirtation.

She shares a beauty of a moment with that conservative, Gareth, at a D.C. bar. They face each other in profile in a long, electric two-shot, these two operatives of opposed parties finding an excuse to hold hands, to boozily kiss and then to pull back, Laurel thinking better of it, even as everything inside her thrums for him. BrainDead slows to something like real time for this encounter, a tender reprieve from conspiracy plotting. It's the clearest suggestion yet that, despite the show's despair at what our capital has become, the Kings' vision is likely optimistic: Politics makes strange bedfellows, and by the end of this 13-episode summer season, two of 'em should be kicking brain-bug ass together.

BrainDead's evenhandedness is the squishiest thing in a series that routinely features brain lobes sliding out of ears. What's more disingenuous — and distracting — is the series' insistence that gridlock, obstructionism and party-minded intractability has only seized us now, this very summer, with the discovery of an ant-infested meteorite. The Kings go for news-cycle verisimilitude by putting Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton on the TV screens their characters are watching, but that actually undercuts the premise: If BrainDead takes place in our real D.C., how do the Kings explain South Carolina congressman Joe Wilson shouting “You lie!” at Obama during a 2009 speech? Or the dinner meeting on the night of Obama's first inauguration, when top GOP reps all vowed — as Robert Draper has reported — to show “united and unyielding opposition to the president’s economic policies”? BrainDead offers a fanciful diagnosis of a pre­-existing condition. The problem is not that bugs have crawled into Americans' brains; it's that in the late 1980s Rush Limbaugh discovered the profitability of partisan outrage, and since then American brains have pickled.

One episode opens with a bang-up confrontation between an NPR listener and an AM talk-radio fan. It's crisply staged slapstick when the lib and the con smash their cars into each other, but it's also the dopiest of false equivalences: NPR invites listeners to consider things, not to conceive of their political opponents as traitors.

The good news is that the Kings’ rancorous pols at last seem to be growing more vicious than our actual politics. In the latest episode, the fourth, Tony Shalhoub's Republican senator “Red” Wheatus has started to suggest that Americans should take up arms against liberals, going further than Palin or Trump. (He says, of his supportive mob, “They're out to make it great again,” with “it” being America.) And some of the jibs lately have more jab than the first few episodes managed.

The incensed NPR fan gets one of the series' best comic scenes, shouting the names of PBS shows he fears might be defunded while brandishing a knife he received as a pledge-drive thank-you. He's balanced by the conservative pal of Laurel's who declares, as soon as visitors have arrived at her apartment, “You know, all lives matter — not just black lives.” For all of BrainDead's conceptual failings, it can be seductive: Only someone whose brain has been eaten would say that.
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Alan Scherstuhl is film editor and writer at Voice Media Group. VMG publications include Denver Westword, Miami New Times, Phoenix New Times, Dallas Observer, Houston Press and New Times Broward-Palm Beach.
Contact: Alan Scherstuhl