A Retrospective on “BrainDead”

By Caroline Forrey

“BrainDead” is a political satire-cum-thriller show that premiered this summer. Set in our current presidential race, it depicts alien bugs that crawl into people’s ears and eat their brains. Sounds like a recipe for success, right? At least to me it did, but I’m starting to think most people don’t have my perfect taste in shows. Why did nobody watch it?

Created by Michelle and Robert King, the writing and producing team behind “The Good Wife,” “BrainDead” stars Mary Elizabeth Winstead of this year’s excellent “10 Cloverfield Lane.” Heck, they even sold the streaming rights to Amazon Prime in advance to assuage production costs.

BrainDead on CBS was cancelled just three months after it premiered.
BrainDead on CBS was cancelled just three months after it premiered.

“BrainDead” debuted on June 14th to an abysmal 4.5 million viewers and a 0.7 rating in the key demographic of 18-49 year olds. By the end of its season run this September, that had dropped by half.

“BrainDead” was dead.

Why are all my favorite shows always canceled? Why is CBS out to get me? I mean between this and “Limitless,” it’s got to be a vendetta, right?

Frequently, the problem lies with advertising. When you have a show on your hands that defies simple genre classification and has a concept that could be described as wacky, how does one go about advertising it without just reading out a synopsis? From what I remember, the ads involved Tony Shalhoub (the guy who played Monk) mumbling something and a shot of the logo. Not exactly the most compelling stuff. It didn’t even get me to show up, I watched the premiere a week later On Demand.

But once I did, I was hooked. Left out of those ads was a complex exploration of the stalemate in Congress and the growing intensity of partisanship in the broader public and its effects on personal relationships. There’s dark humor, a charismatic villain in Shalhoub as Republican senator Red Wheatus who becomes host to the alien bug queen and a surprise romance between Aaron Tveit who plays Wheatus’ chief of staff and Winstead as the sister of a Democratic senator. It’s a show that pleads for moderation and compromise in immoderate times and puts the immature gamesmanship on both sides of the aisle on full display. And maybe that’s where it makes its greatest misstep.

Experimentation is allowed during the summer because viewership is usually low anyways, the top rated scripted show during the fall was “Empire” with an average rating of 6.4 and this summer (below about 16 reality shows) it was “Uncle Buck” with just 1.5. But you can probably guess why a 0.3 rating didn’t earn “BrainDead” a second season.

Summer used to be a television wasteland home to nothing but reruns and mediocre made-for-tv movies. Then came reality shows, which seemed like the ultimate solution: cheap to film, easy to fill up more than one night a week and essentially mindless.

This summer, I found myself dreading the time from May to October when all my favorite shows would be on break and there would be nothing new to watch. However, it seems network television has come to a revelation, many people no longer spend their summers drooling over their measle offerings and have moved onto binging the latest cult shows on Netflix. At least that’s what we can assume from the new trend cropping up in recent years. In an unprecedented move, channels like NBC and CBS are using the summer to try something new and different, to experiment with wacky concepts and outlandish plotlines. To use the summer to air shows they would never dare put on during the typical TV season.

This experimentation has lead to some truly strange concepts like “Siberia” (which no one but I watched), “Under the Dome” (which a lot of people watched and then stopped watching) and “Zoo” (which you should totally watch, it’s so weird and the first two seasons are on Netflix).

And then there’s the show that stole my heart this year: BrainDead. What happened? If people are tuning into to watch grown adults bicker in their bathingsuits (let’s face it: all reality shows) and grown adults bicker over how to save the world from the animal apocalypse on just $11 a day while a pet food manufacturer conspires to kill them (that’s the plot of Zoo, btw), why won’t they watch a smart, savvy show about alien ants on Capitol Hill who rock out to the Cars’ “You Might Think?”

Timely political satire dominates most late night television, but there is a clear difference between “BrainDead” and the likes of the “Daily Show” or even “The West Wing.” Most come with a clear and explicit political bias and the goal of exposing the other party as the fools they are.

“BrainDead” doesn’t do this, in fact it refuses to do this. While the show earned its fair share of positive reviews from the critics (it has a score of 61 on Metacritic), some of the biggest publications panned it and there is a striking similarity in why. Time accused the show of rejecting “anyone who has ideas,” The Atlantic proclaimed it “aggressively apolitical,” and the Wall Street Journal said it fails to meet “Sorkinesque commentary.”

The reviewers seem to think that the satire lacks bite because the Kings are trying to sanitize it to avoid offending anyone with their true political beliefs. I’d argue the exact opposite. They aren’t hiding anything and it has offended people. What are their political views? They hate politics. In an increasingly politicized and polarized world, that’s a tough pill to swallow. You can’t attack the partisan American public for being too partisan and expect them to like it.

So perhaps that’s why “BrainDead” failed. Or maybe people really do just want something mindless to watch when it’s 107 degrees out and their air conditioning is broken. Worst of all, maybe people actually go outside in the summer.

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