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Pandemic bingewatch: Tony Shaloub is at his best when infected by space bugs in ‘BrainDead’

By Maria Korolov

Earlier this year, CBS’ 2016 series “BrainDead” would have been a little painful to watch. The premise of the show is that space bugs have infected Washington, and are making politics more polarized.

Just a little TOO on the nose.

But I only learned about the show recently, when reading a roundup of Tony Shaloub’s performances. I love Tony Shalhoub from “Monk,” and when I found out that space bugs made a home in his skull in “BrainDead,” I didn’t hesitate. I love space bugs. And, now that the election is safely over and I’ve had a little bit of distance from all that trauma, “BrainDead” turned out to be a nice palate cleanser and a reminder that most people are moderates, and if it weren’t for those darn space bugs, we could all learn to get along.

So the main story is about how filmmaker Laurel Healy, played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, returns to D.C. to help out her brother, Democratic Senator Luke Healy, played by Danny Pino. While there, she discovers that space bugs are taking over and is helped in her quest to save the world by Republican chief of staff Garreth Ritter, played by Aaron Tveit. Romantic sparks fly, blah blah blah.

I came for Tony Shalhoub and I was not disappointed.

He plays far-right alcoholic Republican Senator Red Wheatus.

First of all, he’s awesome as an alcoholic.

Tony Shalhoub in “BrainDead.” (Image courtesy CBS.)

Sleazy, corrupt — Shalhoub steals every scene he’s in.

But then he gets infected, and the sleaziness and corruption are cranked up. Way up.

Tony Shalhoub in “BrainDead.” (Image courtesy CBS.)

I’m sure this is a metaphor — in fact, Winstead’s character comes right out and says this at one point in the series. But to my relief, actual D.C. politics didn’t play a role in this show.

That’s a good thing. Actual politics were a horror show this year. By comparison, brain-eating space bugs are a welcome change of pace.

At one point, for example, Shalhoub’s Senator Red Wheatus gerrymanders voting districts to look like alien crop circles. Crazy, right? But, unfortunately, I can no longer say that’s it’s unbelievably crazy. At this point, I’ll believe anything. But at least alien crop circles don’t expose the bitter schisms that are tearing our society apart. I’ve had enough of that kind of thing. Space bug crop circles were just what I needed.

And then the senator tries to start a war with Syria by claiming that Syrian scientists have developed a secret weapon that makes heads explode — and that they’re testing it on giraffes. And baby seals.

Not baby seals! How can we avert war now?

Tony Shalhoub in “BrainDead.” (Image courtesy CBS.)

I don’t want to give away the plot, but let me just say that it gets even crazier. Hilariously crazier.

Just look at his smug, space bug-infected face:

Tony Shalhoub in “BrainDead.” (Image courtesy CBS.)

Shalhoub is in every episode of this 13-episode series, each episode 45 minutes long. And he was deliciously evil throughout. He was so good at being evil that I can see why Garreth, the cute love interest, continued to work for him.

The series is a little gory, but for comic effect. And the plot is rounded up in a satisfying way by the end, making it a perfect pandemic bingewatch.

I never thought I’d say this, but I wish that we DID have a space bug invasion last year, instead of what we actually got instead.

Oh, and the other great thing about the show that I didn’t even mention yet was the fact that each episode starts with an intro song recap by Jonathan Coulton. Someone posted each of these intros on YouTube and, unless YouTube’s taken them down, you can watch them here or here. The intro for episode eight, a parody of a pharmaceutical ad, is particularly fun.

“BrainDead” episode eight intro. (Image courtesy CBS.)

You can watch the entire series on CBS Interactive. It costs $6 per month, and you probably already have it for “Picard” and “Star Trek: Discovery,” but if you don’t, you can sign up here and the first week is free.

MetaStellar publisher and news editor Maria Korolov is a science fiction novelist who covers artificial intelligence, extended reality and cybersecurity at her day job. See her Amazon author page here and follow her on Twitter here. Email her at [email protected].