Mary Elizabeth Winstead has one particular expression that she delivers better than just about anyone else with an up-to-date SAG card among their personal belongings. Her wide eyes narrow a telling fraction as she surveys some bit of madness in front of her, skepticism and a whirring intellect operating in tandem as she sorts through the cognitive dissonance. Every subtle signal of her face shows that she’s graciously, warily pausing to give reality a chance to admit to the slipstream prank it’s trying to pull. Then, with a little exhale of emotion, she visibly accepts the upending of the plausible and starts in on the necessary mental recalibration for her new paradigm.
There has been ample display of this particular gift in 2016, in the face of unexpected bunkering and a potentially delusional castaway. Admirable as those endeavors might have been, this vital Hollywood resource was most effectively deployed in the service of the sadly under-viewed television series Braindead. In this election year that finds new ways to defy belief on a daily basis, Winstead is a helpful stand-in for us all.
Created by Robert and Michelle King, who previously ushered The Good Wife into existence, Braindead casts Winstead as Laurel Healy, a fledgling documentary filmmaker from a gently dynastic political family. When she struggles to find funding for her latest film, she’s coerced into returning to Washington, D.C., where she’s employed as a constituent liaison by her senator brother, Luke (Danny Pino). Before long, she discovers the increasingly divisive environment in the U.S. government isn’t merely the natural evolution of a two-party system. The root cause is more fantastic. To reduce the situation to delightful simplicity, the extreme partisanship is attributable to an invasion of space bugs that burrow into the human, hollowing out the parts that allow for empathetic moderation. With the nation’s capital under siege from the stealthy grey matter chompers — the intergalactic insects like nesting in cherry blossoms — any chance at productive governance is shot.
In Braindead, the satire is thrillingly offbeat and yet thoroughly grounded in the reality of modern party politics. As opposed to much of the comedy that traffics in the stuff of news network punditry, Braindead is deft at skewering both sides of the aisle, in part because it doesn’t overtly seek the safety of entirely fictionalized issues. Practically every bit of cantankerous sparring is around the very topics that start the most heated Twitter battles. The creators obviously revel in exposing the hypocrisies of the right, but the left’s intellectual blind spots are given equal time in scorching punchlines. This isn’t a case of the “both sides do it” fallacy that the punditocracy uses to further fuel the discord. Instead, it’s indicative of narrative soundness. Choosing sides in the dramatic conflicts only serves to leave the storytelling problematically imbalanced.
The pivoting between sharp political banter and deliriously unhinged adherence to the rules of the slippery science fiction conceit leads to a more welcome imbalance, or at least spirited unpredictability. Some of the finest moments hinge on following concepts through in their logical illogic, occasionally issuing the snappy friction to instill some originality into otherwise well-worn tropes, such as the romance between Laurel and Gareth Ritter (Aaron Tveit), the right hand man to GOP Senator “Red” Wheatus (Tony Shalhoub).
The cheeky inspiration of the show is built into every element, including the recap that opens every episode. An absolutely necessity in a time of season-long arcs built for binging, Braindead sidesteps the typical and spoilery Lego tower of clips by employing Jonathan Coulton to troubadour his way through a weekly hyper-verbal ditty that includes all the major plot points a newcomer or a forgetful returner could want. What’s already a meta flourish gets pushed to giddily inventive levels throughout the season, with instances in which Coulton gives up on the convolutions of Braindead and recounts the plot of another show altogether or tunefully tears down the proverbial fourth wall. It’s a cute conceit, but it’s more than that, too. It ideally establishes the tone of the show: clever, charming, and comfortable in its somewhat shambling, ego-free intelligence.
When she recently accepted her fifth straight Emmy for playing Selina Meyer on Veep, Julia Louis-Dreyfus apologized for inadvertently breaking down the wall between politics and comedy. She had a point. The actual electoral landscape has become so bleakly absurd that it nearly defies satire. In a half-decade on the air, Veep has gone from scabrous send-up portraying a version of Washington that reveals truths by being so much worst than what could feasibly be happening within the halls of power to a comedy that’s astoundingly two steps behind the inane mayhem taking place in the name of the citizenry. Veep didn’t change; the United States changed around it.
While I don’t honestly know for certain that CBS has confirmed there will never be a second season of Braindead, the dismal ratings for the show seem to offer a guarantee that no contract extensions will be drawn up. That might be for the best. Much as I enjoy Winstead’s work on the show, society as a whole is probably better off if Braindead doesn’t have an extended run that wields a similar dark magic as Veep. If she had to offer an echo of the Louis-Dreyfus speech from the Emmy stage five years from now, the world would be in trouble deep. The 2016 presidential campaign has already decisively proven that satire is more fun to watch than it is to live.
—Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Season Five
—Cheers, Season Five
—The Sopranos, Season One
—St. Elsewhere, Season Four
—Veronica Mars, Season One
—The Office, Season Two
—The Ben Stiller Show, Season One
—Gilmore Girls, Season Three
—Seinfeld, Season Four
—Justified, Season Two
—Parks and Recreation, Season Three
—Louie, Season Two
—Togetherness, Season One