Summer is generally a rough time for TV fans who prefer good old-fashioned fiction to reality or game shows. Luckily, recent years have seen more summer shows pop up while all the big series are on hiatus until fall. Still, the pickings can be slim. CBS has a new offering this summer in the way of BrainDead, which is an odd combination of genres that somehow works. The show is a comic thriller that is neither terrifying nor hilarious, but it's worth a few jumps and laughs along the way.
The pilot introduces leading lady Laurel Healy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) as a young woman who hates politics despite being born into a political dynasty of a family. Her brother Luke (Danny Pino), on the other hand, is a senator who enjoys big offices and major perks due to his status as a member of the Democratic majority. The government is facing a shutdown due to party squabbling in the Senate, so Laurel joins Luke to help. Unfortunately, the siblings soon have more to deal with than government budget when an asteroid shipped to the Smithsonian isn't quite as devoid of life as everybody thinks. As Luke Healy faces off against Republican senator Red Wheatus (Tony Shaloub), Laurel joins forces with Wheatus' aide Gareth Ritter (Aaron Tveit) to investigate how a series of inexplicable events tie back to the asteroid. Things get distinctly creepy and crawly along the way as it becomes clear that there's more at stake than budget.
The new show is executive produced and created by Robert and Michelle King, who are best known for creating The Good Wife, which recently came to an end on CBS. The seven seasons of The Good Wife are proof enough that the team knows what it takes to make successful television, although The Good Wife just had distinctly fewer aliens menacing the main characters than BrainDead. There's no saying at this point if Robert and Michelle King can bring their magic touch to such an unlikely show. CBS didn't go through the traditional pilot process with BrainDead and instead ordered the project straight to series with thirteen one-hour episodes, so we'll definitely find out. The first of these thirteen installments had its highs and lows.
BrainDead got off to something of a slow start in the pilot considering its status as a comic thriller. The show was set up as pitting politics against an extraterrestrial threat without taking itself too seriously, but there really was not enough ridiculousness in the first portion of the hour to be funny. The characters were written as straight men who bring comedy via their reactions to the crazy situations, and there just wasn't the right amount of craziness at first to set the comic thriller tone. It was a political drama with an asteroid sideplot, and it wasn't that great of a political drama.
Luckily, the pilot picked up once Laurel began to realize that something was wrong in Washington D.C. that had nothing to do with a government shutdown. The episode started to get weird, and Laurel immediately became much more likable of a heroine. The characters took shape as the comic thriller tone established itself, and the pilot that could have been mediocre became great by the second half. There was no laugh track and nobody did a pratfall, but the humor was there.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead wasn't a particularly engaging leading lady until the episode gave her more to do than fret over her dislike of politics. By the final minutes, she proved that she should be able to anchor a show. Aaron Tveit was suitably charming to spark off of Winstead as their characters begrudgingly bonded. Danny Pino was perfectly cast as Senator Healy as he brought a combination of political sliminess with the best of long-game intentions. Tony Shaloub's Senator Wheatus seemed like a pretty one-note drunkard in his first couple of scenes, but got to show off his acting chops later when he rolled with some major plot twists for his character. The cast is overall solid enough to ground the craziness of a secret alien invasion.
The episode did avoid one of the traditional problems that tend to plague pilots. Instead of inorganically dumping exposition on the audience, the episode used Laurel's reintroduction to Washington to exposit via her in a way that really worked. The dialogue was smooth, and the pilot didn't feel like a pilot.
On the whole, BrainDead feels like a bizarre hybrid of The X-Files and The West Wing that nobody ever asked for yet is absolutely perfect for summer TV. The pilot did leave me with a creepy crawly sensation that there were bugs everywhere, and I've had a certain 80s song stuck in my head ever since the end of the episode. Still, I'm on board to see what comes next for Laurel and Co. on BrainDead. If you're a lover of sci-fi, enjoy politics on television, and/or spent your youth reading the Animorphs book series, BreadDead could be the summer show for you.
BrainDead premieres on Monday, June 13 at 10 p.m. ET on CBS.