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Television Review

Partisan gridlock? Blame it on alien ants.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Aaron Tveit star in “BrainDead.”Macall Polay/CBS

The thing to love about “BrainDead” is its insane uniqueness. I’m betting that at some point during the first hour of this new CBS show, you’ll have a classic Liz Lemon “What the what?” moment, especially when you see newly zombified humans wanting to do nothing more than blast the 1980s hit “You Might Think” by The Cars.

But first, here’s a description of “BrainDead.” It’s a sci-fi series that has alien ants arriving by meteor and invading and altering the brains of politicians and staffers in Washington, D.C. It’s a horror comedy that shows cranial matter leaking out of human ears with the exclamation-pointed special effects of, say, “Men in Black.” It’s a solid procedural drama about warring Senate factions, with a D.C. newbie at the center. And it’s a big, fat, juicy allegory about what ails America, set in the very present tense, with TV footage of Donald Trump yelling about greed in the backdrop.


The show, which premieres Monday at 10 p.m., is the kind of eccentric bundle of genres you don’t often find on a network TV landscape dominated by procedurals. Watching the first few episodes of “BrainDead,” I was impressed that it had even made it to air in the first place. Of course, the fact that it’s from the creators of “The Good Wife,” Michelle and Robert King, helped its chances. The notion that summer is the right time for light, quirky material helped, too. But still: It’s an ambitious, almost indescribable series that has fun while feeding into American rage over our government’s partisan mania. The story opens on the eve of a government shutdown like the one in 2013, and the dysfunction only expands from there as the number of zombie-ish people rises.

The Kings appear to be taking both the drama and the sci-fi equally seriously. The drama bears vestiges of “The Good Wife,” as Laurel (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) goes to work for her Democratic senator brother, Luke (Danny Pino). Almost instantly, she is cornered by a Republican player, Gareth (Aaron Tveit), who works for Republican Senator Red Wheatus (Tony Shalhoub), who’s looking to make a deal with her brother and end the standstill. But the situation grows complicated as the sides barter and wrestle for the best media spin, and that’s where the Kings’ history with “The Good Wife” and its twisty power struggles certainly shows. Also, “BrainDead,” like “The Good Wife,” builds for a relatively long time before crescendoing dramatically in the opening title sequence.


Laurel is a lot more relaxed than Julianna Margulies’s Alicia on “The Good Wife.” She’s a documentary maker from LA who is only working for her brother in order to fund a film. When Gareth mansplains things to her, she rolls her eyes. As more and more people are invaded by the ants and begin to listen to the Cars, she begins to suspect something strange is afoot.

Meanwhile, the Kings milk the alien invasion for all the mild laughs they can. “BrainDead” isn’t heavy like “The Walking Dead,” nor is it cartoony like “Ash vs. Evil Dead.” It’s somewhere in between the two, and I’m hoping it stays there. If “BrainDead” were to evolve into a kind of “Walking Dead” survival series with Laurel as the group leader, or if it became more over-the-top funny in terms of those nasty ants, it might lose some of its value as a commentary on D.C. That would be a shame.


I’m interested in seeing how the show develops, and whether, in the midst of all the grotesquery, the Kings can get us to care about the characters. Perhaps “BrainDead” will get too silly and peter out quickly — it’s hard to tell. In the coming weeks, the writers will need to remember that we are definitely not among those referred to by their title.


Starring: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Tony Shalhoub, Aaron Tveit, Danny Pino, Nikki M. James, Charlie Semine, Jan Maxwell, Johnny Ray Gill

On: CBS, Monday at 10 p.m.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.