I’m very surprised, given the circle of people I know, that no-one pointed out the TV series Braindead to me. In fact it’s only because of an Amazon Video recommendation — one that was actually aimed at my wife (who uses our Amazon Video account far more than I do) that I saw it at all. I’ve not heard anyone talking about it at all.
Which is a shame, because it’s really rather impressive at doing what it did.
Braindead is, roughly speaking, a series for people who liked The West Wing but wished more of the characters had their heads explode or had their brains eaten by alien insects. It was broadcast on CBS in the US, and on Amazon Prime over here, last year, but was cancelled after one season. This is a shame, as it’s by far the most emotionally accurate series about politics I’ve seen in a long time.
The basic premise of the series is a simple one — Laurel Healey, a wannabe filmmaker who’s short of money and so working in the office of her brother, a centrist Democrat senator, discovers that a new species of alien insects is crawling into people’s ears, eating half their brains, and taking control over them. The people they take over remain more or less the same as they were, but politically more extreme than they were, with a taste for smoothies, and a love of the song “You Might Think” by the Cars. Sometimes, if they’re unlucky, their heads will explode because of a buildup of alien insect farts.
The main fun of the series comes from the collision of genres — much of the drama is the conventional stuff of US political dramas, with one of the big overarching plots of the thirteen episodes being an attempt to get enough Senate votes together to pass a bipartisan finance bill while also trying to figure out what gotchas have been planted in it by the other side. But then, in the middle of an argument about the stuff of normal politics, insects will crawl out of the ears of two senators and have sex with each other, before crawling back into their brains.
It’s very much a series aimed at geeks — the “previously on BrainDead” recap at the beginning of each episode isn’t a standard montage, but a song written and performed by Jonathan Coulton (I’m not very familiar with his work, but I’ve always had the impression he was one of those Professional Geeks. The songs are quite good though, especially when, later in the series, they start to bear less and less relation to the previous episode, in one case recapping an episode of Gunsmoke instead). There are lots of Spaced-style shots referencing classic films, too; the most obvious one is probably the homage to Raiders of the Lost Ark, but my favourite is a scene in episode three that recreates a moment from 2001: A Space Odyssey, while I also laughed at a recreation of a sex scene from Eyes Wide Shut, with Michael Moore replacing Tom Cruise.
But its real strength actually comes from the same place as its greatest weakness. The show’s basic political stance is that of The West Wing and other centre-fetishism shows — that everyone even slightly to the left or right of the current establishment political consensus is absolutely crazy, and that the highest, noblest, most principled possible calling in politics is to hack procedural rules in such a way that you can convince your opponents to agree to a 5% budget increase for the Centers for Disease Control in return for concessions on education funding. Or whatever.
There were several points in the series where I cringed at the portrayal of Obama/Clinton-style Democrats as the most utterly principled people in existence, but what’s worse is that the makers of the series don’t actually seem to even know what the opinions of the people they’re satirising are. The most radical, extreme, left-wingers in the show? They want to protect arts funding and stop animal testing, and they talk a lot about how great Scandinavian social democracy is. Meanwhile the show’s Big Bad, Senator Red Wheatus (played wonderfully by Tony Shalhoub, whose performance really holds the show together) is a Trump-supporting hard right Republican, and he does at least want to start an unnecessary war in Syria, which is accurate as far as it goes, but he’s also the kind of person who will say patronisingly to black characters “I do believe black lives matter” — not a phrase that even most of the *moderate* Republicans will use. At the same time, both the right-winger wanting to start a war and the left-winger wanting to protect NPR and Sesame Street are “as bad as each other”.
So the most extreme leftists in this worldview are somewhere close to Nick Clegg or Ed Miliband, while the most extreme rightists have no politics at all and certainly wouldn’t ever be racist. I have greater extremes of left *and right* on my Twitter feed.
And yet. And yet…
Even if it doesn’t understand the people it’s satirising, and even if it falls into the false-equivalency trap, what BrainDead does do, really, really well, is to evoke the horrible, terrifying feeling created by the victories of the fascist populism that seems to have taken over the Anglosphere recently. The feeling of looking at half the people in your country preparing to vote for someone who has no aims other than greed and destruction. The terror at the loss of a world which, for all its problems, was at least comprehensible, and its replacement with a world which will cheerfully vote for someone who talks like half his brain’s been eaten away by insects and his head’s full of alien farts.
And to be fair to it, it also at least *tries* to undercut its own centrism — sometimes very effectively. There’s a whole episode in which Laurel has been detained by the FBI for waterboarding (by a torturer who owes a lot to Michael Palin’s character in Brazil), and whether she’ll be tortured or not depends on the outcome of a Senate subcommittee meeting. The stable, simple, understandable system is a predictable machine, but one that can and will chew people up and hurt them.
BrainDead may well be, for all its myriad flaws, the work of art which speaks most to my own emotional experience of the world for the last year, and it’s well worth watching for that. The amazing thing is that the show was developed in late 2015 — some of the resonances in it make more sense now, in 2017, than the writers could have known.
It can be viewed on Amazon
Postscript for those for whom representation matters: the principal characters of the series are all white, but there are a large number of black characters. I don’t recall any LGBT characters being present in the series, though one man may have been coded as gay. The gay-coded man was also one of three autistic-coded characters, none of whom were straight white men (the other two were a middle-aged female entomologist and a black chess-genius conspiracy-theorist who’s one of the main supporting characters). Most (but not, I think, all) episodes pass Bechdel.
And a few notes of specific triggers that people I know who may want to watch this have — the series contains intimate partner violence, some scenes that while not depicting rape show something that could hit the same emotional buttons, and the mention of a dog being euthanised.
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