We open with title cards over a set of TVs playing political rants, like we’re in the world’s most stressful Best Buy or something. “In the year 2016 there was a growing sense that people were losing their minds… and no one knew why… until now.” I’m a fan of the eighties-pulp-movie red lettering they’re using.
We see some people being overpowered by a wave right after what looks like a meteor strike.
“Meanwhile,” the title cards announce: and we cut to a young woman on the phone fretting that she can’t get some unnamed large amount of money in a week, but will try when she gets back to LA. She hangs up, swears to herself, then stares at a set of monitors playing news about a fire, Hillary Clinton, and Trump. (They really lucked out here that Trump won the nomination. I mean, not as citizens of course, but as writers peddling a show about how politicians are having their brains eaten.)
Our heroine, who we’ll eventually find out is named Laurel Healey, descends the stairs into what appears to be a giant fancy cocktail party. Some dude tries inelegantly to network her, DC-style (“Senate or House?”) until she tells him she’s a documentary filmmaker and he promptly runs away. She’s soon greeted by her brother – he calls her “Sis” so we won’t get confused – and then Mr. Networker gets all excited to talk to her again, but is pulled away by security guards. Turns out the brother, Luke, is a Senator. He’s interrupted by his red-headed assistant (conveniently named Scarlett) for a “budget call,” but when we see him back in the kitchen with Laurel he’s mostly chomping on hors d’oeuvres and teasing her about her obscure documentary topic, Melanesian choirs. We also learn that the monitor-filled room where we first saw Laurel was her old bedroom, which her father is now using as a base from which to conduct some sort of sketchy-sounding government consulting.
Soon enough, the senator has to go back to his phone call, which is with some sort of doctor who is working with the Russian government to retrieve a meteor (well that doesn’t sound sketchy at all, I’m SURE it’s not related to zombies or anything) and is concerned about the Republicans cutting his budget. As soon as he hangs up with the Senator, the doctor calls some Russian buddy and asks him to “do it… cheaper.” Russian guy stares at several suited divers standing at military attention, but is distracted by a colleague’s large, vodka-soaked burp. The Kings may resist villainizing one side or the other of the political line, but they’re certainly not above broad-stroke comedy about Russian stereotypes, which I have to say I enjoy. We all have our vices.
Back at the Healey house, Laurel is talking to her father, better known to many of us as David Lee from The Good Wife, who wants her to come home and be the one person on her brother’s staff that can be trusted. She hates politics, she declares, but he is absolutely convinced that she’s the only one for the job, because Reasons. (This is one of those TV machinations that makes no sense in the real world, but we all know it’s necessary to set everything up so we just kind of accept whatever trumped-up justification we’re given.) When she realizes he’s willing to bribe her, she says she’ll do the job for six months in exchange for half the financing she needs on her documentary. He tries and fails to negotiate her down, and then kisses her on the forehead to seal the deal.
The next morning Laurel arrives at work only to be snubbed by the receptionist. A Rachel Maddow-like commentator is jabbering away on the TV about a possible government shutdown. Scarlett grabs her and explains the job to her (no one seems fazed by the fact that the senator is using government money to pay his sister to do a job that she’s so nakedly unqualified to do that she literally doesn’t know what it is; but hey, politics are corrupt!). The job is to deal with constituent complaints.
Laurel’s dumped unceremoniously into a waiting room full of dully angry-looking people, one of whom has a giant chocolate dog. Laurel, nervous, announces that it’s her first day, “So you know, go easy on me.” Nobody laughs. Awkward! Then we get an amusing little mini-montage of complaints – there’s one with a Social Security issue, one with an insurance issue (and a gross rash), one with a massive crush on the senator (that’s Chocolate Dog guy). Laurel does her best, but even she can’t get through to the social security administration. Her brother comes in to say he’s glad she’s here, and takes a piece of the chocolate dog. He also advises Laurel to “use my power” to deal with recalcitrant government agents. Aka, threatening to pull their funding. Seems like a lovely guy!
Laurel’s next constituent announces to Laurel that her husband, an engineer, is “not himself” after a sea crossing. She shows Laurel a video of her husband examining a container with a hole in it, then jumping in to explore it. The video is cut short by what looks like an explosion, and a male scream. The constituent explains that this is the first place she came—because the container was signed off on by Luke’s office, on its way to the Smithsonian. (A passing Scarlett also seems clueless about a possible shipment to the Smithsonian, but do we trust Scarlett? Only time will tell.)
In the middle of all this Aaron Tveit interrupts them, but Laurel insists that she can’t be interrupted. He is clearly discomfited to see that his handsomeness didn’t immediately cause her to drop whatever she was doing and pay attention to him. As am I. He turns out to be Gareth, a Republican (we can tell because he sighs at Fake Rachel’s rant about Republicans). But Laurel still hasn’t figured it out; she starts asking him about his Viagra issues, getting him mixed up with a constituent, even though she JUST SAW him handing a card to Mrs. Burke, the wife of the engineer. He has to explain that he’s the legislative director for a senator whose last name is “Wheatus,” but who will henceforth be referred to as Senator Weenus, because it is funnier and he also deserves it. Gareth declares that, with ninety minutes left to government shutdown, his boss is willing to make a deal in return for a few million for autism research in the budget. He gives her his card and swears her to secrecy. One hundred thousand government jobs depend on her, “so if I were you, … I’d run,” he says. (Wow, they really misused that in the promos.)
Obediently, Laurel starts running, trying to locate her brother. She chases Luke’s trail to the Capitol, then to the restaurant, then (at the tip of an understanding waiter who quietly alerts her that it was not, in fact, his wife at dinner with him), to Scarlett’s house, where Luke is TOTALLY NAKED on top of Scarlett. Luke is like a game of Gross Politician Bingo.
Luke is forced to take the call with Gareth from Scarlett’s house, wearing a T-shirt, with Scarlett sitting and pouting on the staircase in the kind of silky bathrobe that women on TV always seem to have lying around for after they have sex with inappropriate people. She promises Laurel it’s not serious because she is a “child of divorce” (like, what?).
Luke comes back and tells Laurel he’s going to reject the deal, and she hits him—not for that, but for cheating on Germaine, his eight-months-pregnant wife. She calls Gareth to tell him the deal’s off. He hangs up, after shamelessly guilting her, yet again, about the people who will be out of work the next day.
The doctor at the Smithsonian, Daudier, is lecturing in his lab about some sort of non-organic honeycomb structure, presumably from a meteorite, when they’re all directed to leave for the government shutdown. They immediately leave the meteorite totally unsecured in a giant empty room. Great idea, guys. Then a whole bunch of dirt explodes out of the meteorite. OH WAIT NO. It’s not dirt. It’s a SWARM OF ANTS. And if that idea bothers you, you aren’t going to enjoy the rest of this episode, I promise. They swarm towards a broken window (should scientfiic labs have broken windows? Is this because the Senate didn’t give them enough money?), where you can see the Washington Monument gleaming in the not-so-distant distance. Do you get it, though? Do you get it?
The credits come, and they share the same pulpy, black-and-red aesthetic as the title cards. I like it.
After the credits, wind howls outside the Capitol, presumably representing how empty the place is. Luke is having a staff meeting, declaring that he is furloughing all but two of his staff: his chief-of-staff, and his constituent caseworker. The room chills noticeably as everyone figures out that he means “my girlfriend and my sister.” Wow, this guy is the worst Senator ever. Even Laurel begs him to reconsider. He tells her if she feels bad to work twice as hard. So basically, this show is going to be about how the entire system uses someone’s guilt complex to get her to work for the corrupt system.
Apparently Laurel doesn’t have to actually see any constituent cases today; she’s on the boat, talking to its captain and asking about this mysterious package. He turns up the music and acts very uninterested in her, giving her a speech about how everyone changes when they come back from the sea. Laurel persists, asking for the cargo manifest, and finally gets sent down to an orange-vested worker: the very same one who was in the video with Mrs. Burke’s husband. He completely denies knowing anything about the husband or the video. Meanwhile, everyone stares at Laurel from different upper decks of the boat. It is actually pretty eerie—I mean, she’s out there all alone with a bunch of hostile people, far from any possible help. And it turns out that Gareth has already taken the cargo manifest. They… don’t keep copies?
Laurel comes back into Senator Weenus’s office to find him ina drunken stupor on his couch. Thinking she’s a masseuse he apparently ordered, he asks for special attention to his adductors. I love how the politicians in this show are uniformly just as gross as real-life ones. Laurel finds Gareth and asks him why he’s helping Mrs. Burke, accusing him of poaching her. As Gareth tries to make his escape, Laurel basically blackmails him by yelling something about a pro-choice rally to make him look like a turncoat to his fellow Republicans.
Next thing you know, he’s showing her the manifest out by the Washington Monument. He quotes the same speech about people changing when they come back from the sea, but attributes it to the first mate. Laurel sees her opportunity to play Veronica Mars and notes that the captain said the same thing to her, and that they must have agreed on a story. Coverup!
Interesting how Laurel’s paranoia about conspiracies, coverups, and The Russians zomg is extremely justified, even though it exactly mirrors the wild paranoia that marks the least rational, most seemingly-been-lobotomized-by-alien-ants politicians working today. Gareth advises Laurel not to be overly paranoid in this town. She upends that slightly-patriarchal moment by mocking him: “Oh, please tell me more about this town,” she pouts. He sends her off so he can eat his lunch. And then he hints that Senator Weenus might still be willing to make a deal.
But when Laurel takes her brother out for drinks, he quickly punctures her remaining idealism. Senator Weenus doesn’t give a shit about autism—but this Gareth person has a sister with it. Laurel is surprised (so I guess she does have something to learn about this town!). Luke also tells her that he’s broken off with Scarlett, but Laurel doesn’t believe him, and tries to guilt him, not realizing that he’s pretty clearly beyond shame. She reminds him about when they found out their own father was having an affair: he almost killed their dad, and she left home. Not to minimize cheating or anything but that actually sounds like kind of an overreaction?
Anyway, Luke eventually agrees to make a deal as long as Gareth isn’t “freelancing.” Laurel also asks him about the container shipment he signed off on, and Luke mumbles some unintelligible stuff about keeping his constituents happy. At this point Laurel notices that once again, random people around the restaurant are staring at them. Luke, bless his heart, thinks it’s because he’s a famous Senator. Like he doesn’t notice that if this were a Hollywood thing, people would be tweeting about it, or taking stealth pictures or something. Not just freezing in their daily lives and directing burning, motionless glances towards his very-not-famous sister.
Luke leaves with a condescending kiss on the forehead. Laurel calls Mrs. Burke, who hangs up nervously as soon as her husband appears. He cheerfully announces that the Republicans are insane and they need to do something, and then the couple gets into bed. Mrs. Burke lies facing away from him, looking terrified. He wraps his arm around her, and apologizes for not being himself. “I think I’ve been feeling angry. About the world,” he announces, kissing her. She tries to get him off of her by bidding him goodnight, then telling him she needs some sleep. But he just holds her tighter and sort of rocks her back and forth (I don’t think he’s like… sexually assaulting her, but he might be?) as she notices a stream of ants coming out of their flowerpot. She struggles, but her husband clasps her in his arms, claps his hand over her mouth and tells her creepily, “Don’t struggle or they’ll hurt you. You’re still gonna be yourself, but a better part of yourself, and we’re gonna know each other like never before. I love you.” He kisses her and smiles as the ants crawl over her face. Oh my gosh. I don’t know if I can keep watching this show, you guys. Being held down while bugs crawl over you is like the WORST. And let’s not even think about what’s going to happen to her during this commercial break.
After the break, thank God, we don’t have to watch what the ants do to Mrs. Burke. Instead, Laurel’s pedeconferencing—or really, pedeflirting—with Gareth, outside of…I want to say the Lincoln Memorial? It’s square, anyway. And it has a lot of columns. (I’m just gonna admit right here that I did not pay a lot of attention to my middle school field trip to Washington.) Anyway, Laurel calls Gareth out on having a sister with autism, and he laughs that she’s investigating him, and she says she does that with people she doesn’t trust. Uh, Laurel? Your brother did that. You, quite understandably, were way too mesmerized by his chin dimple to worry about investigating anything. He explains that when he told Weenus about the deal, Weenus was happy enough to take it. Laurel says he was lying; he corrects that he was dealmaking. Once again, he gets all up in her grill about what Serious Business this budget crisis is, and how all she has to do is convince Luke to meet.
Laurel is apparently no less susceptible to Aaron Tveit’s chin dimple than the rest of us. She bursts into Luke’s office and begs him to make the deal since Gareth isn’t freelancing, and people are hurting. He ignores her to take a call, so she calls her father. Oh yikes. She tells him about the deal and that Luke could be “the leader of the party” if he puts together a budget deal. Her father tells her that even if she hates politics, she’s clearly good at it. Which, yeah. Calling the slimiest person you know to help you accomplish what you want seems like good politickin’ to me.
As soon as Laurel’s off the phone, in come the Burkes, pleased as punch. Luke compliments Laurel on how well she helped the couple. Mrs. Burke announces that she’s been paranoid, and now she wants to donate money to Luke’s next campaign (anything to stop the Republicans, Dr. Burke quips). Laurel makes a hilariously skeptical face and pulls Mrs. Burke aside to ask if she’s being hurt. Mrs. Burke just smiles sweetly at her and then says, with an edge, “Don’t question happiness.” She and her husband march off hand in hand. Laurel tells Luke that they’re trying to stop her from investigating, but he says that she needs to leave it alone: she’s not Nancy Drew.
Then Luke’s called to meet with Senator Weenus and Gareth, at the same restaurant where he went with Scarlett before. “You didn’t tell me he was a Democrat!” Weenus jokes. But they sit down for a drink and have a hell of a time while Laurel and Gareth, who are apparently too lowly to actually sit down at a place like this, look on. Actually, Laurel is looking on and Gareth is alternately texting and flirting with her, his back to the politicians. They talk about the documentary she’s making, and he teases her that caring when things (like Melanesian choirs) disappear is like being a Republican. An eighties song starts playing that Laurel’s been hearing a lot, and she gets suspicious—especially when she notices that the waiters are doing the same creepy staring thing that the waiters at the bar did the night before. “You’re very easily distracted, aren’t you?” says Gareth.
Meanwhile, the senators, who have been drinking and reminiscing about the old days when people worked together and Senators got free drinks at their staff parties, emerge from their drunken stupor and announce they’ll be having a press conference the next day. “It’s your third day and I think you just saved the DC economy,” Gareth says. Laurel doesn’t have too much time to be smug because the doctor from the Smithsonian has called to ask about that thing where someone was infected by his shipment. We don’t get to see any more of that phone call.
At home, the Senator starts taking off his shoes but finds he’s too drunk to finish. Apparently he’s just going to go to sleep on his back, perpendicular to his pillows, fully clothed. But it’s all the better for him, since the Ant Army is crawling in his window… and into his ear. Oh God. Gross. He suddenly sits up, and tilts his head to one side, pounding the opposite ear as if to loosen water from his ear. But no. It’s not water. As soon as I saw a mass of pink squishy stuff emerging semi-convincingly from his ear, I closed my eyes, because I don’t want to see someone squeeze their brain out of their earhole. Sorry guys, I’m NOT going to watch this scene with my eyes, even for you. I can hear some constipated grunting, a squishy plop, and then a chuckle from Senator Weenus. And that’s all the detail I can provide.
After the commercials, Senator Weenus is blow-drying the brain fluid out of his pillow. Oh God, dude. Just buy a new pillow. I get that you aren’t making bank as a Senator like you were in the olden days, but you gotta have standards, nome saying? Then he puts on that same eighties song, which I guess is the anthem of the Ant Zombies, and scrubs out his ear, which is still oozing leftover squirts of something that basically looks like that sauce you dip spring rolls in. Lovely. Hopefully now that we know the mechanism of the Ant Invaders, we won’t have to actually watch it too much after this.
My other concern is, if all the zombies are obsessed with one song, how quickly are viewers of the show going to get really freaking tired of hearing it? I kinda like it so far, but I have a very high tolerance for repetition. And for eighties music.
Gareth is chilling in the office when Weenus struts in, clearly shocking Gareth by arriving before noon. Then, even more shockingly, he gives Gareth a giant hug. Cheerfully announcing that they’re actually not doing a press conference after all, he starts gathering bottles of alcohol from around his room and throwing them, half-full, into the wastebasket. There’s like an entire bar’s worth scattered around his room. He gives Gareth a number to call instead of the press conference.
Laurel is still neglecting every other constituent case she might need to hear; instead, she’s at the Smithsonian, threatening a surly guard with a budget cut to get into the museum. He lets her in grudgingly—but pretends not to hear her asking him to turn the lights on. Laurel walks into the room and finds the open container that the Ant Invaders poured out of. Don’t lean in there, Laurel! Or at least hold your hands over your ears! Luckily, a sound distracts her. She tries the nearest door, and then screams for the guard.
In the ambulance, sirens blaring in the background, Dr. Daudier is screaming about something in his ears. He can feel his mind going, and he’s resisting desperately, even, finally, bursting into tears. It’s horrible. And then there’s a graphically squishy explosion noise and everyone else’s faces get covered in blood. So… that happened. Why didn’t he just squeeze his brain out of his ear like the Senator? Maybe because he was too smart to be caught up in political games, so his brain resisted too hard? Or his scientist brain was so big that trying to get it out of his ear made his head explode? Or is it just that black people on TV always have to get saddled with the most horrible deaths? I guess we’ll find out someday… Also, how come there are no ants mixed in with the brain pulp that’s splattered on everyone’s faces? SO MANY QUESTIONS. So many questions I NEVER wanted to ask.
Anyway, after the commercial, Gareth tells Senator Weenus he’s got a visitor, and Weenus tells him to bring the visitor in through the kitchen. He makes a confusing speech about how they need to bring the visitor in through the kitchen so they can have a bigger office and stop kowtowing to Democrats. This is somewhat clarified when it turns out his visitor is a Democratic senator that Weenus is trying to convert to Republicanism, though it doesn’t explain all that stuff about the kitchen. “What is a Democrat these days? What is a Republican? A brand,” he pontificates. Cutesy music plays as he wraps up his pitch with “Let’s make history.” Yeah, Weenus can be the first zombie to ever convince someone to change political parties!
Laurel finishes up a gory shower, then comes into the office and sees Fake Rachel on the TV announcing that a senator has indeed switched sides. She tells Scarlett she was watching a man’s head explode, and Scarlett, taking her about as seriously as anyone would, tells her they’re switching offices since they’re in the minority now. Laurel looks pretty resigned, but she offers dramatic condolences to Luke—who rejects them. He is gobbling chocolate dog and planning revenge on the Republicans. “You and Scarlett are gonna help me kick their ass starting today,” he grins. “Tell me what to do,” Laurel answers. Then she starts staring at Scarlett, who’s playing the Zombie Anthem—and Scarlett stares back at her with a grin. Uhoh.
Well, this was… quite an hour! Read my thoughts on why it’s worth watching here.