Brains: Great Concept, Not Enough Character

Feeling like it’d been too long since I’d done a review, I let the internet pick one for me. The internet picked Brains

Here’s the thing about Brains: it definitely could be good. Really good, even.

Here’s the other thing about Brains: it isn’t very good.

 Creator Bri Castellini   Credit: Brains

Creator Bri Castellini

Credit: Brains

Created by Bri Castellini, Brains has a great concept—what’s life like after the really bad parts of a zombie apocalypse are over? But fails to capitalize on it. The story follows Allison (played by Castellini) as she produces a documentary assignment turned coping mechanism on her handheld camera, going on patrols, researching zombies, and lusting after no-nonsense team leader Damian.

Conceptually, that’s all fine, but the thing about a concept like this is that it needs to be almost entirely character driven to work, and most of the characters in Brains are, pardon the pun, lifeless zombies. Almost none of them seem to have much of a personality outside of their role in the story, and given that the story itself (“we’re trying to be as normal as possible in fucked up times”) isn’t exactly pulsing with enough urgency or intrigue to either distract from its cardboard inhabitants’ shortcomings or inject them with some pathos and purpose, this is a really big problem.

To be fair, Allison is actually pretty great. Castellini has a natural charisma, and Allison benefits from by far the most screen time in the series. She’s one of the only character who feels remotely like a real person*, and she benefits from the most natural writing in the series as well. That said, she’s not a very consistent character, and something that may be life-or-death important to her in one episode will be almost entirely a non-factor in the next. Her relationship with Damian particularly serves the needs of a given episode’s plot rather than either character, and the plot is too thin to warrant the sacrifice. 

*There are two or three more, I’ll get to them in a minute.

Beyond Castellini, things get dicey. This is clearly a cast made up of friends who want to make something together, not seasoned actors, and the wooden delivery that plagues important characters like Damian or the series’ villain only serves to emphasize the stilted dialogue and under-written personalities.

But really, you can only pin so much on the actors. Would an A-list cast have been able to elevate the material? Probably. But you don’t get an A-list cast in the web series world.  Moreover, it’s the responsibility of indie filmmakers to play to their cast’s strengths, not shine a light on their weaknesses.

Characters in Brains are too often defined by their roles (guy who Allison likes, girl who is mean to Allison, scientist), and not by who they are as people. I can’t tell you what almost any of these characters care about, want, or even really believe beyond “zombies bad, getting laid good.” What is Damian passionate about? What does he value in a conversation? These aren’t questions Brains has much interest in answering. Everyone is just here to move the plot along, or for Allison to bounce off of… with a few exceptions.

Greta, the girl who hates Allison, doesn’t get as much screen time as Damian or Carl (Allison’s bestie, more on him in a minute), but her actress has some chops, and the writing actually bothers to give her a conflict with Allison that feels rooted in their respective personalities rather than just being a box to check on the plot-point shopping list. The two characters have a history the writer has actually thought through, and as such the tension between them plays as legitimate. It’s a shame she’s used so little (and given almost nothing to do with much impact, though perhaps that’s to her benefit given the way the plot dominates Damian) because she’s the show’s second strongest performer and one of its most well-written characters.

Ben, a season two addition, has natural presence and is immune to one of the series’ major writing foibles (long, uncomfortable silences that do no favors to the characters stuck in them). Like Greta, he’s largely underused, existing mostly to foment discord between Allison and Damian, but he’s effective when he’s on-camera and his character acts with a purpose and intent that feels real. Mind you, this isn’t a *great* performance or worth seeking out on its own merits, but in a sea of under performance, adequacy seems praiseworthy.

There’s also Carl, who was the bright spot in season one, with an off-kilter doofus charm and a natural rapport with Allison that made him easy to invest in. He was recast for season two, though, and the new actor, and the writing, have gone a completely different route with the character.  It’s hard to judge the new iteration on its own merits given we’d already spent a season with OG Carl, but the new edition feels like a completely different (and less compelling) person, characterized mostly by clinginess and those aforementioned silences.

Speaking of those silences...Wow. This show really loves them, and it’s an increasingly damaging crutch. For one thing, in a format like this, you have an extremely limited amount of time to communicate a ton of information, and every one of those awkward pauses chips away at that precious supply. That’s not so say silence can’t be used to sell a moment or to deepen a mood, but here it does neither, merely serving to suck time away from the audience, and make all of the characters involved seem passive and dull (and believe me, they were doing just fine seeming passive and dull without the help). It felt like almost every major conversation had two or three long pauses of the characters staring at their feet, and while I’m sure the writer had a reason at the time, as a viewer all it did was bore me. Silence works dramatically when it serves a purpose, or underscores an earned character moment. It doesn’t work when the writer doesn’t want to figure out a more interesting way for their characters to respond to bad news.

And while we’re talking about boring, let’s talk about the show’s villain. Equal part uninspired stock character writing and under-cooked dead-eyed performance, she’s really, really boring. She delivers all her lines in a stilted monotone, she never feels like a real person, and while she has clearly explained motives, the dialogue never allows us to believe any of them. She exists solely for the show to have a bad guy, which is actually a good thing in theory (this show badly needs a conflict with some sense of urgency to it), but she utterly fails to deliver. I’m rooting for the good guys to take her out not because I want them to win, but because I want her off my screen.

The rest of the cast are mostly other stock characters (nerdy guy, fidgety guy, shy girl), except for Allison’s primary love-interest, Damian.

Damian, probably the character with the second most screen time, feels like he’s wandered in from a Wes Anderson movie. Specifically, he feels like one of those Wes Anderson kids who’s built their entire identity around *arbitrary thing here*, which plays a lot better on a child in a twee mumblecore comedy than on an adult in a post-apocalyptic melodrama. His performance is fine at that level, but totally at odds with everyone around him, and it would be difficult for he and Allison to have less chemistry with one another if they were both wearing beekeeper suits. Damian improves a little bit in season two, where he’s allowed to play a few more notes (although whether those notes are remotely organic to the character is another issue), but he never feels like he’s on the same show as everyone else, and his relationship with Allison never feels anything approximating natural.

And maybe that’s Brains’ biggest problem: none of it feels natural. Everyone is talking to exposit, rather than to express themselves, and the plot intervenes whenever anyone’s at risk of having an actual character moment. Ultimately, most of the cast turns out to be much more plot points than people, and you’re left with mostly just Allison to invest in. It just isn’t enough. Brains purports to be a slice-of-life show, but slice-of-life only works if we care about the lives we’re slicing, and Brains never does the work to get us there. But maybe Brains isn’t what it thinks it is? It claims to be about life after zombies, but spends most of its screen time on zombie-centric nonsense or clumsy melodrama.

If Brains is a slice-of-life comedy, it should spend more time building characters we care about, and worry less often about the looming threat of zombies as anything more than a fun comic device and world builder.

If Brains is a relationship melodrama, it should double down on its core players, give them some heart, and stop pretending to care about anything else.

If Brains is a zombie show, then it needs a real sense of threat and either a tonal shit to more traditional zombie tropes, or a villain with enough heft to demand audience investment.

If Brains wants to be all three of those things, well, that’s certainly ambitious. But as it exists right now, the show doesn’t have the writing chops, the characters, or the performers to walk that tightrope. Don’t get me wrong, there’s still a ton of potential here. The concept is strong, Castellini is the real deal, and every once in a while there’s a truly solid laugh. But by trying to have its cake and eat it too, it’s just ending up with frosting on its nose and a urinal cake in its mouth.

If you're interested in checking out Brains you can check out both seasons today.

Written by Nick Feldman