TV Recap: CBS’ ‘BrainDead’ Premieres and lives up to its name

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It’s not difficult to balance sci-fi and comedy, as countless Hollywood examples have demonstrated, e.g., “Men in Black,” “Spaceballs” and “Mars Attacks,” even the political milieu has been utilized several times, which is why CBS’ new Horror/Comedy/Drama series “BrainDead” feels like it’s coming up short. It’s not funny enough to be a comedy, not scary enough to be a horror and a little too stilted to be taken seriously. At best, it offers some form of lukewarm entertainment while spectators wait for their favorite shows to come back during the fall season.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead (fresh from her other sci-fi role in this year’s well-received “10 Cloverfield Lane”) stars in this hodgepodge-genre series, playing Laurel, a struggling documentary filmmaker with a heaping mound of student loan debt who moves from sunny L.A. to cloudy-with-a-chance-of-political-hail-storm Washington D.C. to work for her democratic Senator brother (Dany Pino). Laurel arrives in Washington right in the midst of a political party gridlock, or “fiscal Armageddon” as the always-streaming-from-some-device media has dubbed it. But Laurel finds herself in a sticky situation when the handsome Republican legislative director Gareth Ritter (Aaron Tveit – apparently straddling the age line between high-schooler Dany Zuko in Fox’s “Grease Live” earlier this year and a 30-something on a Washington payroll). Representing Republican Senator Wheatus (an under-utilized Tony Shalhoub), Ritter offers Laurel a deal: pay a $48 million earmark for autism studies and Wheatus will vote with the Democrats, simultaneously ending the gridlock, or he stands with his Republican fellows and hundreds of employees lose their jobs.

Aside from the political drama, the other half of the show – the part I’m guessing got executive-producer Ridley Scott involved – is where highly organized bugs from a Russian cargo crate replace the brains of Congress members. It sounds funny in an odd-juxtaposition kind of way, but seeing Shalhoub slap his walnut out of his head like pool water wasn’t particularly funny or unsettling (I was more worried about his bed sheets getting stained). This is the overwhelming attitude the pilot episode has one feel – confusion. Certain things feel like they’re suppose to be funny, like when all the brain dead Capitol Hill staffers suddenly have the urge to download Cars’ 1984 peppy relationship tune “You Might Think.” It could be the chorus “All I want is You,” a threatening mantra that has Laurel constantly looking over her shoulder. Or maybe the lyrics “You might think I’m foolish…You might think I’m crazy,” are bluntly emblematic of the current political climate, a series of unfortunate political decisions that affect many lives and are executed by cavalier men in suits with career agendas.

The faculty-controlling bugs are supposed to be the hook, the TV click-bait that lures viewers in, but the political angle is, surprisingly, the most interesting aspect of the series, considering what times we’re in – it’s what you call perfect timing. As Laurel makes her way through the byzantine Capitol Hill buildings, she’s never more than five feet away from some screen blasting news about budgetary problems or some Trump diatribe or Hillary talking about the negativity from the opposite party. What a pity, the series had an opportunity to be an interesting political satire, instead it tries to juggle a little too much, offering viewers a Frankenstein project that has a little of everything but not enough to satisfy. Especially considering we have shows like “Veep” and “House of Cards” that skewer Washington either with hilarious vulgarity or exposes its closed-door conducts in daylight horror.

“BrainDead” might coast for a while on its catchy premise alone, but it seems a bit all over the place for now to feel one way or the other about it. Perhaps those unforgettable Cars lyrics rang too true: “And it was hard to take, so hard to take.”

GRADE: (★★)