I didn’t really think there was any way for a show with a premise like that of Braindead, the newest show from Good Wife creators Michelle and Robert King, to hold together. A political satire, but with zombies? It sounded like a hot mess. I wouldn’t have been surprised if Aaron Tveit (who plays Laurel’s love interest and counterpart across the aisle) had suddenly broken into song: everyone loves a Zombie Musical!
But I was wrong. I admit my massive fangirlishness for The Good Wife may be biasing me here, but I think this show, like Buffy or Community, has the potential to be one of those curios that in its refusal to fit in a genre manages to carve out a big new place for itself in the TV landscape.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead stars as Laurel, an idealistic filmmaker who gets roped into the world of Washington politics (through one of those flimsy plot mechanisms that only works in TV pilots) as a caseworker for her slimy senator brother. Just another fish-out-of-water comedy meets political drama—or it would be, except that just as a budget crisis causes a government shutdown, a mysterious shipment arrives in DC carrying killer ants that invade people’s brains and turn them into happy people who like eighties music. Laurel is convinced that something strange is happening around her, but given how strange everything else is in Washington, no one else around her seems to have a clue.
Winstead plays Laurel with quick intelligence and a sprinkling of comedically exaggerated facial expressions. (Fun fact about Laurel: her driver’s license doesn’t exactly resemble her. “I had pink hair back then, I wanted to be a poet,” she quips.) She’s not Nancy Drew, as her brother reminds her when she becomes suspicious that something strange is going on around her, but she certainly has shades of Veronica Mars: she’s another smart, funny, hackles-up woman in a world that has a bouncy pop soundtrack but a dark, satirical core.
Braindead has an utterly idiosyncratic, offbeat tone, but it works quite well. One moment people are making deals and having affairs like it’s just another Tuesday in Washington; in the next scene, an army of alien ants marches out of a flower vase. Somehow the quippy, fast-paced dialogue and syncopated editing style (lots of surprising, sometimes abrupt cuts; few portentous lingering shots of people’s faces) lends itself well to unifying the seemingly disparate plot elements. The cheery Cars song that the ant people love forms an upbeat and optimistic soundtrack even as the world goes to shit, adding a nice surrealistic punch to the equally surreal events. Even the episode titles (the pilot listed on cbs.com as “The Insanity Principle,” but fully listed on Wikipedia as “The Insanity Principle: How Extremism in Politics is Threatening Democracy in the 21st Century”) are enjoyably off-kilter, an ultra-pompous title for a show whose tone is a mixture of the witty, the grotesque, and the bizarre.
It’s funny, it’s gross, and yet it has a razor-sharp question at its core: can American politics be saved? Laurel’s paranoia that people are watching her, that there’s a giant plot out there that she can’t figure out, doesn’t just echo the thought that has crossed the mind of everyone who’s followed American news lately—is everyone around me infected with some strange insanity?—but also mirrors the day-in-day-out paranoia of every operative in DC. Everyone’s plotting; everyone is out to get you. And for the rest of us, the absurdity of politics, with its shutdowns and its filibusters, its Trumps and its Berniebros, means that reality itself already seems like a quaint last-century relic, because the facts are unbelievable and the truth is subject to the manipulation of every individual’s perceptions. Paranoia is the name of the American game, and Laurel might just be its perfect new personification.