For their first TV project since the farewell of The Good Wife, co-creators Robert and Michelle King have come up with BrainDead, premiering Monday night on CBS. It’s a satire of current government gridlock, a commentary on the inability of Republicans and Democrats to work together, placed within a farcical sci-fi context. The 1984 hit by the Cars, “You Might Think” runs constantly throughout the series, with an emphasis on its refrain, “You might think I’m crazy.” This is, in other words, a project that is nothing like the courtroom strategies of tequila-tippling Alicia Florrick.
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In BrainDead, little tiny insects worm their way into people’s ears and eat away at their brain matter, sometimes causing an invaded head to explode like a burst tomato. As in most science fiction stories, we in the audience are hip to the situation sooner than the characters, who can’t believe their eyes, and must grope around for rational explanations that elude them. This is the Kings’ metaphor for the current election season: Extreme events inspire extreme explanations. Soundbites from Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and Bernie Sanders play on TVs in the background of numerous scenes in BrainDead.
The rational human we’re supposed to identify with is Laurel (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a documentary filmmaker who’s working in Washington, D.C., for her congressman brother (Danny Pino) until she can finish funding her latest movie (yodeling and clog-dancing are among her subjects, which we’re supposed to find sadly yawn-inducing).
Laurel arrives in D.C. just as the town is entering another governmental shutdown due to intransigence on both sides of the aisle. In many of The Good Wife’s political subplots, stubbornness of this sort incurred the barbed irritation of the Kings’, who tried their best to be equal-opportunity scolds to both parties. So it is here, except that the political tilts toward the Democrats in a visual cue: the Republicans tend to be crude and boisterous, while the Dems are prettier and more openly anguished about their hypocrisy.
A few Good Wife faces pop up, most notably Zach Grenier — the gleefully odious attorney David Lee — as Laurel’s father. The tone of BrainDead is one of manic farce with a cutting edge. As creators, the Kings are doing a TV version of the kind of corrosively cynical political satire Stanley Kubrick brought to movies with Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964). But in the three episodes of BrainDead I’ve seen, the farce is only fitful — the series is too insecure about keeping an audience watching, and so it goes too frequently to the romantic subplot between Laurel and a Republican staffer, Gareth (Gossip Girl’s Aaron Tveit). Then too, the bug-in-their-ear gimmick is neither clever or frightening enough to qualify as a generator of either giggles or suspense. BrainDead is, overall, a smartly put-together piece of work, but it lacks the sharp sting of political criticism it seems so ardently to want to burrow into your brain.
Brain Dead airs Monday nights at 10 p.m. on CBS.