"BrainDead," which premiered Monday (June 13) on CBS, is a summer series with politics on its mind. Arriving just as an already surreal presidential election begins to heat up, the pilot opens with clips of Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders on the campaign trail and text reading, "In the year 2016 there was a growing sense that people were losing their mind."
The idea for "BrainDead" was spawned during the federal government's shutdown three years ago when, like millions of other Americans, series creators Robert and Michelle King found themselves wondering just how Washington, D.C., had become so dysfunctional.
"There was so much going on in D.C. that was absolutely inexplicable that we needed to create a narrative to explain it," says Michelle King. Space bugs seemed no more absurd than reality -- that the job of governing had turned into a zero-sum competition between Democrats and Republicans.
With a tone the Kings describe as "Roger Corman meets Paddy Chayefsky," "BrainDead" blends satire with screwball comedy and B-movie sci-fi. While it's zanier than other current political dramas, like "House of Cards," it still has a serious point to make.
"The left and the right wings are being pushed to extremes," says Robert King. "There's the Bernie Bros on one end and the tea partiers on the other end. The moderates are kind of disappearing. That's what the show is really coming out against, this loss of the moderate middle."
"BrainDead" is almost certainly the only show on broadcast TV that relies on what its creators describe as a "Jonathan Swiftian metaphor," or that has episode titles worthy of a dissertation. (The pilot is called "The Insanity Principle: How Extremism in Politics Is Threatening Democracy in the 21st Century.")
The series is also making a provocative argument about contemporary politics. Not only is it saying that the country has become very polarized but that ideological purity, not corruption, is what ails Washington.
"We think everybody's going after the wrong thing," says Robert King. "Idealism keeps people from actually talking to each other and compromising. The brilliance of the American government should be that it encourages people to compromise, and that's the only way things get done."
For cast and creators alike, the biggest challenge has been nailing the tone, which swings from comedy to drama to thriller within a single scene.
And as Shalhoub observed, it can be tricky to parody a political era that already seems farcical: "I keep thinking we're starting to swing over into absurdist mode. Then I went to see 'Weiner'" -- the documentary about former Rep. Anthony Weiner's doomed New York mayoral run -- "and I started to think, 'Wow, maybe our show is not as wild I had imagined.'"