‘BrainDead’ season 1 finale postmortem: Creators Robert and Michelle King answer your burning questions
After delivering some of the weirdest, the most tense, and the most topical moments on TV this summer, BrainDead’s first season has come to a close.
The series that came from the minds behind The Good Wife and put space bugs into the minds of politicians aired its season finale on CBS tonight. Creators Michelle and Robert King chatted with HitFix to look back at their wacky political satire and break down what we saw in those concluding two hours tonight.
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD FOR BRAINDEAD’S SEASON 1 FINALE
So our ragtag team has defeated the bugs, and things have gone back to normal in D.C.: There’s a lot of stupidity on Capitol Hill but no longer any extraterrestrial-born insanity. “All the heads explosions notwithstanding, mostly everything turned out alright,” the show’s musical recapper, Jonathan Coulton, sings as he wraps up some loose ends.
The Kings wrapped up a few other loose ends for us. They also revealed which character they almost killed off and what the prospects are for a second season. Read on for HitFix’s conversation about BrainDead with the husband-wife showrunner duo.
HitFix: I spent much of the season worried that Gustav or Rochelle or Gareth another in that group would get overtaken by the bugs but also believing they’re probably safe. Why did you ultimately decide to have that core group survive with their entire brains intact?
Robert King: We like the characters. We like the actors. There was always a plan to kill Gustav, but we just love what Johnny Ray [Gill] was doing with it. In the end, The Good Wife was probably more a tragedy when you think about the whole trajectory, while BrainDead is more of a comedy.
Look, a lot of these characters are also a little bit cartoons in that if they had died, you wouldn’t really be hurt by it. But at a certain point, we started to embrace what Johnny Ray was doing with Gustav, and it was like, “Oh you can't kill him. Everybody would hate you.”
Johnny Ray Gill as Gustav in BrainDead. Photo credit: Michael Parmelee/CBS
I was just as shocked as Rochelle was that Gustav ended up being in the NSA.
Robert King: I just find that the NSA guys and the contractors are the most paranoid people because they know what’s within the system. And they know how to beat the system. So it felt like someone who was a paranoid nut is someone probably who has been inside the bowels of power but on a lower-level area. So, to us, he’s like Snowden. He’s like someone who was within the system and knows how it works and is now kind of taking himself out of it.
Tell me about where this idea came from for shame to be what gets the bugs out with shame being the thing buried in the mind deeper than anything else, as Rochelle says.
Robert King: The writers room — we were all discussing what is the most human thing that you don’t find in — and I have to use a name now — for example, in Donald Trump. What is a thing that you would find that would connect all humans in a way? At first we all thought comedy. Having to battle the bugs from one side of the brain made sense. But what is this thing in the deepest recess? The thought that you were caught masturbating when you were a kid or a bad case of acting when you were in high school. These shameful things that actually are as deep-seated as you are. And once we got got there, we were like, “Well, that’s a really good showdown with [Red Wheatus].” Why does he keep calling Laurel ‘Lana,’ and what is that about? So those things, looking at politicians around us, and seeing the thing they keep trying to not allow to be brought up.
Clarify for me: The queen bug dies, and that draws out all the other bugs, but that alone doesn’t kill them? Break down for me what happened there.
Robert King: I don't know if you've seen photos of a queen bee getting in someone's car, and the car is covered with bees because they're all trying to get to the queen. We were playing with this idea of once you kill this queen, all these bugs swarm around it and start dying.
But did Rochelle and Gustav still need to get rid of the cherry blossoms then?
Robert King: No, the idea is you needed both to knock them out. Otherwise they had someplace to go retreat. One of the reasons they die is they don’t have the option of going to the cherry blossoms that Gustav and Rochelle knocked out.
And what we’re saying with [the bug seen on Wall Street] is we were always intending there was a second wave. That's why the bug looks different at the end.
You had mentioned before that in a hopeful season 2, the show would go to Wall Street, then to Silicon Valley the next season, then to Hollywood. Would it be the same space bugs at all in those institutions?
Robert King: Something different. Where we were going was bigger each time. We were talking about going rat-size with Wall Street.
So there’d still be a mystery to solve with the new creature.
Robert King: Oh, yeah. And we’d have all the same characters, ’cause we just love them so much. We were going to lose Gustav, and Rochelle wasn’t going to follow, but we were having so much fun with the actors.
Tony Shalhoub in BrainDead. Photo credit: Michael Parmelee/CBS
Tony Shalhoub looks like he’s having more fun than just about any actor on TV right now.
Robert King: [Laughs] I actually think that’s true.
Michelle King: And we certainly have fun working with Tony. He is just such a kick.
Once you saw his performance, how he was approaching Red, did that guide the writing of the character?
Robert King: Oh, yes. On two fronts: 1) There were never supposed to be any major scenes between him and Laurel, Mary Elizabeth [Winstead]. And then when you saw how well they played them, we ended up putting more scenes of them together and started re-writing toward a finale that would involve the two of them.
The closest I can get to it is Carrie Preston doing Elsbeth Tascioni in The Good Wife. You don’t really write jokes. You write towards mannerisms that you know you’ve seen them do well in other dailies. So you let them find the joke and where the comic inflection would be. I think that’s the only way you really can write towards Tony.
Aaron Tveit and Tony Shalhoub behind the scenes in BrainDead. Photo credit: Michael Parmelee/CBS
Why is Gareth still working for Red in the end?
Robert King: There was a lot of discussion in the [writers] room about that. The bottom line is you sympathize with someone who is as pitiful as Red gets in the last episode. But more importantly, before then, he’s feeding the information to Laurel that matters to them discovering how to conquer this. Up until the point he saw that there were bugs, it made sense that he would stay with a good job, a good job where he could influence policy. But once he saw that there was something supernatural or metaphysical going on, the reason he stayed — as you saw he almost started to resign — was because he could feed Laurel information and because it's very hard when your boss is pitiful and falling apart to jump away from him.
Watching Gareth trying to accept this insane space bugs thing — that was great. Was it rather gratifying for you and your writers to finally get Gareth in on this?
Robert King: Only because Aaron was so good. [laughs] We were all thinking that turn would come earlier. But Aaron’s performance — it was fun to think how he would react. The surprise was we thought Luke would go through the whole series and never acknowledge there was something weird going on, and then we had this idea to go with the CIA scene. These two practical, pragmatic guys having to face that there was this weirdness going on was fun to us.
One criticism the show’s gotten is that, while it does a good job of highlighting issues with extremism in real current politics, the show doesn’t call out either side of the aisle for issues unique to each party. What’s your response to viewers who were frustrated with that?
Michelle King: We were trying to do something that isn’t typical on television, which is point to problems on both sides.
Robert King: The tendency in TV is to preach to the choir, to talk to your own side and get your own side riled up. You see that with most late-night comedy. There’s a tendency to speak to the left wing and preach to someone who already agrees with you.
I thought what was challenging about the show and what we wanted to do was that a lot of the issues on the left are also on the right wing, which I think most TV watchers would acknowledge, is also on the left wing. There is this extremism. The Bernie Bros, for example. So we just didn’t want it to be a one-sided issue. As much as people do think the Tea Party is as extreme as our One Wayers, we wanted to show there's potential on the left wing to be just as extreme.
Michelle King: No, they were cast in another way. We have a spectacular casting director, Mark Sachs. He’s very hooked into who's on Broadway and who’s available.
The closest we get to hearing Aaron Tveit sing is in that wild scene when they’re trying to get the bugs out of Laurel’s head. Did you ever talk about finding a way to get him singing on the show?
Michelle King: I talked about it incessantly. But there was absolutely no way that the story would justify it. Nikki M. James is the other one you want to hear belt out a tune or two, but, again, there wasn’t really a way to justify that.
Tell me about choosing The Partridge Family’s “I Think I Love You” for that scene.
Robert King: Well, we started with “I Will Survive,” and that one turned out to be too expensive. We wanted it to be something that would be almost like a return to childhood, something that intuitively your mind might go to, and it felt like it should be something simple, and Partridge Family obviously jumps out at you.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Danny Pino in BrainDead. Photo credit: Michael Parmelee/CBS
I really enjoyed watching Luke and Laurel’s scenes. There are far fewer well-written brother-sister relationships on TV than brother-brother and sister-sister duos. What would you say is the key to getting that kind of relationship right?
Michelle King: It probably didn't hurt that Robert’s one of seven.
Robert King: I have four sisters, so there’s a big, deep well to tap into. First of all, we agree with what you're saying. I don’t know why the relationship isn't explored more. It's like if there isn’t a possibility of sex, things flatten out, when in fact, I like that there’s this camaraderie and friendship where they understand each other and can kind of finish each others’ sentences. And Mary Elizabeth and Danny Pino did such a good job with that. Even though there’s not a lot of visual similarity, I completely believed they’re siblings.
Michelle King: By the end of the first episode, you thought they must be related by blood.
I love that they would totally give each other s--t whenever one of them deserved a good talking-to.
Robert King: Yes, when she starts hitting him or something. That’s what siblings do. It’s a relationship that should be explored more, I agree.
How are things looking for a season 2?
Robert King: I don’t think good.
Michelle King: Nothing has been said definitely. But we did construct it in such a way that the ending of season 1 tells a full story.
Robert King: We love this cast. We love working with this cast. We had so much fun. It would be a perfect experience if it ends, but it would be a lovely thing to return with. Hopefully it’s something like Buckaroo Banzai that people will see and in a year or two, or bury it in a time capsule somewhere.
More HitFix coverage of BrainDead:
The BrainDead creators chat striking gold with their actors’ perfect chemistry, figuring out the show’s tone, more
How Glee ripping off an indie artist led to musical recaps on BrainDead
Find out which R.E.M. song got beat by The Cars for repeated use in BrainDead