Russell Baillie writes about movies for the Herald

BrainDead mixes mad politics with flesh-eating bugs

Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays a D.C. newbie who lands a job with her brother. Photo / Michael Parmelee, CBS
Mary Elizabeth Winstead plays a D.C. newbie who lands a job with her brother. Photo / Michael Parmelee, CBS

What an actor like Mary Elizabeth Winstead is doing in Washington sci-fi horror BrainDead is pretty obvious.

It's just her kind of thing. She's appeared in numerous horror flicks in her career. She even managed one - Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter - with some, er, political themes.

She's a big horror fan. One who knows that, yes, her oddball new show shares a title with Peter Jackson's 1992 splatter film and that it went by a different title - Dead Alive - in the US.

"It's a little horror, but a lot comedy," she says of BrainDead. "It's a little sci-fi, but it's also a family drama, it's so much that it's hard to really put in a box."

But what about the folks behind BrainDead? That's the husband and wife team of Robert and Michelle King. They created and wrote the smart, classy The Good Wife for seven captivating, award-winning seasons.

What are they doing creating show about bugs from space invading the brains of the American political elite?

"Robert started out doing a killer cockroach movie," says Michelle King, who could be mistaken for The Good Wife's Diane Lockhart as she sits alongside her husband at a New York press event.

Yes, Robert King's first feature script was 1988's The Nest for low-budget shlock-master Roger Corman.

"So, we have come full circle," he laughs about his return to entomological terror.

Tony Shalhoub plays Senator Red Wheatus, one of the politicians rewired by the extraterrestrial bugs.

"It was kind of explained like a mash up of West Wing and Invasion of the Body Snatchers," says the former Monk star whose wife Brooke Adams was in the 1978 version of the latter.

It might be funny and occasionally icky, but BrainDead also wants to say something about the dysfunctional US government of the Obama era - the Kings came up with the idea before the rise of Trump - just as The Good Wife took on contemporary hot-button issues in its legal drama.

Michelle and Robert King created the critical hit The Good Wife and their new series, BrainDead is about politicians whose brains are eaten by bugs. Photo / The Washington Post by Erin Baiano
Michelle and Robert King created the critical hit The Good Wife and their new series, BrainDead is about politicians whose brains are eaten by bugs. Photo / The Washington Post by Erin Baiano

The Kings pitched BrainDead to CBS during the US federal government shutdown of 2013 when the Republican-majority House of Representatives attempted to stop Obamacare.

"It was a very ludicrous time where a lot of people were doing strange things and hoping for good results," says Robert King.

"It's like they'd lost their minds. I mean, as soon as you talk about the metaphor, it takes you right to Invasion of the Body Snatchers - why did so many people start thinking they could do crazy things that would have insane results."

He cites as a predecessor Stanley Kubrick's Dr Strangelove, taking the nuclear doomsday thriller novel Red Alert and turning it into black comedy.

"We can't even get close to that. But the most serious thing of our times is governmental dysfunction in America, and I think that's what we want to approach and the way not to do it is earnest."

The show doesn't take political sides but represents the Democrats and Republicans through its two lead characters - Winstead's is a DC newbie who lands a job with her Democrat senator brother.

She finds herself at political odds - though personally attracted - to a Republican political aide played by Aaron Tveit.

"It's not just for the very liberal entertainment industry that we all live in," says Tveit of the show. "If there is a political statement, it's making a statement against extremism."

But the Kings say as well as skewering US politics they wanted to have have some fun at a time where a lot of television just isn't.

"One of the things we don't love about the golden age of TV in America anyway is how pretentious a lot of the shows are getting.

"There is just a little bit of, like, 'why does TV have to be so hard to watch?' A lot of it is trying to resist this feeling that a serious show has to be pretentious. It doesn't really have to be."

And it may be sci-fi satire, but BrainDead has also got romantic comedy at its centre. And when it's not got bugs on the brain, BrainDead can seem somewhat like The Good Wife in its scenes powered by snappy banter between its two leads.

"That's editing," says Robert King. "We respond to movies like His Girl Friday - Cary Grant. What was really always fun about that was how quickly everything moves and how you move from place to place."

While BrainDead might be set in a Washington attacked by brain-eating bugs, King says it's hard to keep up with the weirdness of actual American politics right now.

"We're talking about bugs from outer space that eat people's brains, so, you would think that's as extreme as you can go but ... there's so much going on right now that makes us feel a little pedestrian sometimes. So, we've had to kind of up the game.

"We're ... a little startled by how ludicrous things are going."

What: BrainDead
When: Tuesday, 8.30pm
Where: The Zone

- NZ Herald

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