Think of every old joke there is to make about Washington — yes, including “It’s Hollywood for ugly people” — and you’ll probably hear it retold in the odd but intriguingly warped summertime dramedy “BrainDead,” premiering Monday on CBS.
A sort of cross between a lesser season of “The West Wing” and the latter-day Nicole Kidman remake of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” the show offers the only plausible explanation for partisan gridlock on the Hill: Alien ants arrive by meteorite, then crawl into the ears of politicos and take control of their brains.
The show is the first effort from the husband-wife team of Robert and Michelle King since wrapping up their superb drama “The Good Wife.” So maybe something crawled into their brains, too. Or maybe they’ve discovered the right mix of larky summer TV, using an outre genre (B-movie alien invasion) to make a political joke that anyone can get and enjoy. In the first three episodes, the writing is peppy, the plot is fun (predictable, sure) and the actors seem to understand that there are far worse ways to earn a paycheck. “BrainDead” is weird and welcome on a seasonal network schedule that’s certainly been brain-deader. (The dreadfully mediocre “Zoo” or “Extant,” if you want recent examples.)
Mary Elizabeth Winstead (PBS’s “Mercy Street”) stars as Laurel Healy, a documentary filmmaker who has never finished a documentary. Lucky for her, she’s the daughter of a powerful Maryland political family of Democrats, and her father (“The Good Wife’s” Zach Grenier) makes her an offer she can’t refuse: He’ll pay off her student loans and fund her film work if she’ll take a staff job in the office of her dashing brother, Sen. Luke Healy (“Law & Order: SVU’s” Danny Pino) and make sure he’s hewing to their father’s agenda.
Laurel reluctantly agrees, arriving just as a government shutdown deadline looms. All around her, Washington is in full dysfunction, while, on TVs that seem to hang on every wall, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump stump for president. “It’s this town,” Laurel says. (Or does she mean “This Town?”) “I hate this town. And I don’t, at the same time.”
Her outsider disdain for everything inside the Beltway is probably the only reason that she’s the first to figure out that something’s really wrong. Assigned to meet with her brother’s constituents and listen to the range of their (often wacky) concerns, Laurel talks to a woman who insists something is wrong with her husband, who just returned from working on a freighter that happened to be carrying a rock that fell to Earth in Russia and was on its way to the Smithsonian.
Laurel’s efforts to look into the strange story are initially thwarted by Gareth Ritter (Aaron Tveit from “Grease: Live”), an ambitious staffer who works for her brother’s Republican rival, Sen. Red Wheatus (Tony Shalhoub). With the budget stalemate, it’s hard to get anyone to listen to her, yet Laurel becomes increasingly convinced something is messing with Washington’s collective mind, especially after she witnesses a Smithsonian scientist’s head explode.
Grosser than that, Laurel notices that some people have started listening to the Cars’s 1984 hit “You Might Think” over and over and over. (Turns out the song soothes the ants occupying their brains.) Does the invading species have an ultimate goal? The space bugs mostly cause their victims to become more politically entrenched: Democrats dig in on liberal stands; Republicans won’t budge on right-wing positions.
Ridiculous, yes, but also engaging — and maybe some relief for viewers who are preoccupied with politics but could still use a break from cable news. “BrainDead” is no “Good Wife,” but it does have the Kings’ sense of wit and momentum. It also, to some degree, displays their knack for timely social commentary. Bugs in the brain are as good as any explanation for the political nightmare we’re living.
BrainDead (one hour) premieres Monday at 10 p.m. on CBS.