In 2008, just days after the presidential election, South Park aired an episode exploring Barack Obama’s victory. In the episode, both Obama and his political opponents, including John McCain and Sarah Palin, were shown secretly working together, running an Ocean’s 11-style long con (including faking their identities: the “real” Palin had a posh British accent, for example) in order to steal the Hope Diamond from the Smithsonian via a tunnel hidden beneath the Oval Office. In the B-plot, the conservative residents of South Park holed up in a bunker, readying themselves for the collapse of society they felt sure would follow Obama’s election, while liberal Randy Marsh went on a celebratory spree, leading to telling off his boss and parading down the street naked, so convinced was he that Obama’s victory had changed everything and that things were going to be different now. For such a regularly cynical show, it was oddly reassuring, suggesting that erstwhile political foes could actually work together, even if it was to perpetrate a jewel heist, and the B-plot served to deflate both the apocalyptic and messianic rhetoric that had made the election so divisive. Things won’t change that much, it seemed to say.
Fast-forward to 2016, and such notions of cooperation seem downright quaint; the rise of Donald Trump, Presidential Contender, has raised questions as to whether satire is relevant or even possible anymore. No writer or cartoonist can top the bizarre reality that Trump has built up in his repeated lies, promises, and threats, and that we now find ourselves trapped in. No modern “A Modest Proposal” could be more shocking than some of Trump’s own statements, no discriminatory or unconstitutional policy proposal so disgusting that it won’t find support in at least some portion of the electorate, newly empowered by Trump to express their bigotry out in the open. I’m starting to understand how conservatives suffering from “Obama derangement syndrome” must have felt; recently I had a “step away from the computer” moment when I realized that for my own mental health I couldn’t spend all my time reading and relaying news stories and commentaries about Trump: with more than a month still to go before the election and a flood of ever-more-insane details trickling out every day, I needed to get some fresh air or else I’d go crazy.
So perhaps it’s fitting that two of my summer pleasures channeled this pervasive political anxiety into forms that are both more palatable and which provided the narrative closure that eludes us in real life: BrainDead, a thirteen-episode CBS series that ended two weeks ago, and Vote Loki, a four-issue Marvel comic book miniseries that wrapped up last Wednesday.
In Vote Loki, written by Christopher Hastings with art by Langdon Foss, the Norse god of mischief (and recovering supervillain) Loki manipulates his way into the presidential race, to the consternation of Nisa Contreras, a crusading journalist whose own drive to uncover the truth was fueled by the destruction of her childhood home during a battle between Loki and the Avengers. Contreras’s attempts to reveal Loki’s true purposes are continually co-opted by the candidate himself, spinning every new revelation into more proof that Loki is a “chess master,” an outsider working the system for his own ends. Loki’s ascent, which begins with him saving the two mainstream candidates from an attack by the terrorist group HYDRA, is driven by his celebrity status: at first a novelty, his “plainspoken” openness about his villainous character earns him the loyalty of supporters who feel left out of the process. “I’m going to lie to you right to your face and you’re gonna love it,” he says; his slipperiness is just part of his rakish appeal. (When Contreras provides proof that Loki’s political advisors are actually members of a Loki-worshipping cult, Loki laughs it off: he said he was a god, and doesn’t the First Amendment protect freedom of religion?)
Of course, this is a comic book world, so in addition to HYDRA, other threats to the republic include a destabilized Latveria (home of Doctor Doom, whose absence has created a dangerous power vacuum and a terrorist-supporting regime calling itself “Doom’s Children”) and issues surrounding superpowered mutants and Inhumans. Some of Loki’s Asgardian relatives make appearances, as well, including Thor, who as a member of the Avengers can’t get involved officially but who passes some critical information to Contreras.
Like most “outsider” candidacies, Loki’s first and most important platform is that the other guys, who represent the “system,” are worse, both equally compromised and too indebted to the establishment to change anything. (The two mainstream candidates are a man and a woman, but are unnamed, and there is little else to identify them as Trump or Hilary Clinton.) Again, that’s an argument frequently bandied about by Libertarian Gary Johnson and Green Jill Stein in this election (and by supporters of Bernie Sanders who aren’t ready to accept his concession to Clinton in the Democratic race); it’s complete baloney to say that there’s “no difference” between the Democratic and Republican candidates, especially this year, but it’s an easy sell when the two major candidates are seen so negatively and even members of their own parties are having trouble expressing much enthusiasm for them.
Absurd times call for absurd heroes: Loki joins fellow Marvel character Howard the Duck in mounting an insurgent campaign, and like Howard’s 1976 run, Loki’s campaign is in the tradition of courageous truth-tellers who say what they’re really thinking (and what is Trump if not “outspoken”?) and are loved by voters for daring to speak their mind. Of course, one man’s Man of the Year is another man’s A Face in the Crowd, and the flip side of all that honesty is a loose cannon shooting his mouth off, a demagogue who tells voters what they want to hear and gives them permission to exercise their basest passions.
Early in Loki’s campaign, J. Jonah Jameson challenges Loki during a television interview: “Everyone loves an electoral circus, and now you’re the sideshow! What fun! Until you get so big you get your own tent.” Sound familiar? Over months of mounting alarm over the possibility of a supervillain taking control of the United States through legal means, the American system of politics as reality programming is held up to a funhouse mirror, with Loki’s real intentions hidden (perhaps even from himself) until the eve of the election.
BrainDead, created by Robert and Michelle King (creators of The Good Wife), working with more narrative space and a larger cast of characters on television, takes a different approach, one in which the real action is in Congress. BrainDead explicitly takes place in our world, with frequent references to the Clinton/Trump race and clips of the candidates’ appearances on television screens, but in its own way it’s as far out as the gods and superheroes of Vote Loki, as if the Kings finally had somewhere to put all their ideas that were too crazy for The Good Wife.
As BrainDead begins, struggling documentarian Laurel Healy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) has reluctantly returned home to Washington, D.C., and her political-dynasty family, to help her brother Luke (Danny Pino), a Senator. At the same time, a strange meteorite recovered from Russia turns out to be full of ant-like parasites that infect their victims by climbing into their ears and eating half of their brains. A few of the infected succumb to Scanners-like head explosions (or “catastrophic head injuries”), but the rest are taken over by the insects and undergo a personality change, becoming more rigid, aggressive, and ideologically-driven. Conservatives are pushed farther to the right, liberals to the left, with no ability to find common ground. Once the meteorite is taken to Washington and members of the political class are exposed to the bugs, the result is chaos and gridlock produced by the already-intense partisanship being thrown into overdrive. Laurel, working in her brother’s office as a constituent liaison, is one of the first to notice something strange is going on.
So BrainDead clearly follows in the footsteps of Invasion of the Body-Snatchers, with strong shades of The X-Files. Who can you trust? How can you fight something that most people won’t even believe in without evidence? When even her longtime friends change overnight, Laurel is aided in uncovering the truth by a physician (Nikki M. James) and that standby of conspiracy thrillers, the paranoid loner: Gustav (Johnny Ray Gill), an eccentric autodidact who knows a little about everything and keeps his cell phone wrapped in tin foil so the NSA can’t track his location. The insider’s-view political satire (which is frequently very funny) is tightened and made queasy by its sci-fi/horror flourishes and even moreso by its obvious, if heightened, relationship to the real world.
As good as Winstead is in the lead, the cast’s MVP is Tony Shalhoub as Republican Senator Red Wheatus. Before being infected by the bugs, Wheatus was an unambitious, day-drinking good-ol’-boy politician, but after infection he becomes a laser-focused, uncompromising (even murderous) right-wing warrior (and a teetotaler: among other signs of infection is an aversion to alcohol) and Luke Healy’s nemesis. As the bugs spread to ordinary citizens, Wheatus turns their heightened political passion into a movement (the “One Wayers”) and begins engineering a war against Syria based on false evidence. Wheatus’s Democratic counterpart, the similarly bug-infected Minority Leader Ella Pollack (Jan Maxwell) plays along from her own side of the aisle. The reasoning behind the Syria plan takes a while to unravel, but it ultimately ties into the bugs’ plans to keep the humans divided and our government paralyzed by disagreement.
I’ve read criticism that BrainDead indulges in too much “both-sidesism,” a chronic complaint against American political satire that attempts to take on the “system” or politicians at large rather than having a specific point of view. As the old saying goes, the middle of the road is a good place to get run over from both directions. There’s a little bit of truth to that, particularly in light of Laurel’s romantic entanglement with Senator Wheatus’s Chief of Staff, Gareth (Aaron Tveit), an idealistic (and uninfected) Good Republican who couldn’t have been any more of a paragon if he were specifically written to counter charges of liberal partisanship. While Wheatus conducts his secret war plans, murders political enemies who get in his way, and makes a mockery of the political process (in one memorable episode, he holds up an entire committee over naming a kiosk in the Capitol Building after a slain police officer named Sharie because it sounds too close to “Sharia,” an idiotic idea that would be a lot funnier if it didn’t sound like something that could really happen), Gareth’s biggest flaw is that he’s stubbornly straight-arrow, and he can’t get over the possibility that Laurel might have slept with Michael Moore. Conservativism is more savagely satirized on BrainDead than liberalism, if only because the GOP is in such disarray and provides so much material, but it’s extremism, not conservatism itself, that comes in for the most criticism.
But that’s the point: that our democratic system depends on dialogue and compromise, and the real danger to it is a take-no-prisoners, scorched-earth attitude that would rather tear down the whole system than give an inch to the “enemy.” Cronyism and politics as usual make reliable targets, and there is much to decry in the horse-trading and back-scratching of pork-barrel politics, but this is an unusual moment. We are reaping the political landscape that comes from gerrymandering “safe” districts that allow primary challengers to push candidates to extreme positions; the normalization of inflammatory rhetoric; and the echo chambers that arise when every political viewpoint has its own news outlet and we are able to insulate our social media experience from opinions we disagree with. On BrainDead, it’s the politicians who are willing to compromise, to be seen drinking and socializing with their opponents, and who are willing to work the system rather than let it grind to a halt, that are portrayed as heroic–flawed, perhaps, but heroic. The Kings all but spell it out for us by having Laurel herself says as much in episode 11, in which she plays the bohemian artist card to explain her recent obsession with bugs: “I’m a filmmaker, and as a filmmaker, I use the language of metaphor. . . . So all the bug stuff you heard was just my way of talking about all the extremism in Washington. As an artist, I use metaphors a lot, probably too much. I love metaphors.”
In the end, things get back to normal, which is to say the inefficient, corrupt system continues: it’s “politics as usual,” and that’s a relief. Red Wheatus is back to his not-too-bright self, and it turns out that half a brain is plenty to function in Congress (cue laugh track). Similarly, in Vote Loki the title character observes the unrest and even violence that has erupted in response to his candidacy and finally deigns to face his supporters directly. Naturally, they all want different things from him, and when pinned down he finds that you really can’t fool all of the people all of the time. (Of course, maybe he never really wanted to be president, and had other goals in mind the whole time–something that has frequently been said of Donald Trump–but who can say?) As in the 2008 South Park episode, it’s a reassuring (if modest) vision. Both BrainDead and Vote Loki ultimately come down in favor of the status quo, imperfect as it is, and in so doing partake of the oldest myth in America: that as frequently as our system breaks down, as tested as it may be by the original sin of racism, the corruption of big money, and the easy answers of ideology and demagoguery, it is capable of renewal: that out of the chaos of the electoral process, we will pick ourselves up and rebuild, as we do every four or eight years. Can we pull it off one more time? I sure hope so.