What if a big space rock crash lands in Russia and a zillion evil alien ants pour out of it, and the ants all end up crawling into the heads of our elected officials and their staffers in Washington, and they turn everyone into mindless teetotaling zombies who are obsessed with the 1984 hit song “You Might Think” by The Cars? It’s a fair question. It is also — uh, spoilers — the plot of the new CBS drama BrainDead, a new summer series from Robert and Michelle King, the creators of The Good Wife.
BrainDead stars Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Laurel Healy, an artsy free-ish spirit and member of a Washington political dynasty who escaped the family business to become a documentary filmmaker who makes movies no one wants to watch or — of importance to the plot! — invest in. This conundrum brings her back to D.C., where she makes a deal with her father (Zach Grenier) to work in the office of her senator brother (Danny Pino) in exchange for funding. Quickly, she finds herself smack in the middle of a hyper-partisan budget issue, attempting to broker a deal involving her brother and a drunken senator from across the aisle (Tony Shalhoub, playing a character named “Red Wheatus,” and having what looks like a lot of fun doing so), with the assistance of the other senator’s handsome staffer (Aaron Tveit).
All of this on its own, or maybe with that added “from the creators of The Good Wife,” would probably be a show, kind of a House of Cards crossed with a CW drama crossed with Monk, but if Monk was actually a show called Wheatus about a booze-guzzling legislator instead of a series about a phobia-riddled private detective. And a big part of me hopes they pitched it just like that and then let a long, long dramatic pause linger in the room before adding “… and brain-eating zombie ants from outer space!” I would have liked to be there for that. Just to see everyone’s faces.
(The plot of the show is also fun to picture through the filter of Donald Trump’s tweets, if you have a few minutes and are brave enough to push yourself into that headspace. “Zombie ants invading Washington. No action from Obama on zombie ant forcefield. Sad!” “Goofy Hillary Clinton has no solution for the zombie alien ants. I will have the best solutions.” “Zombie alien ants are classless losers and no one but me has the guts to say it.” The plot, I imagine, would also be fun to explain to your uncles, all of whom will simultaneously respond by saying “Doesn’t sounds like fiction to me!” So if you’re bored today, there you go.)
And truthfully, it all works pretty well. CBS is selling it as “a comedy-thriller,” which isn’t super accurate because it isn’t much of a comedy and it isn’t much of a thriller, but whatever the genre is, it’s a fun little summer watch. It wisely leans hard into its goofiness early on, which is a little disarming, as if the show has anticipated exactly that reaction from your uncles and wanted to jump out ahead of it. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is great as Laurel, the protagonist and occasional winking Greek chorus. It’s not easy to play the normal person in a show filled with crazy people, and she strikes the balance really well. As I’ve mentioned twice already and am about to again, Tony Shalhoub is a national treasure. The scene where he gets turned by the ants — and it is killing me not to spoil it — is really something, especially for broadcast television. If you’ve ever wanted to see Tony Shalhoub squeeze his br-… no. I promised. You should see this with fresh eyes.
That said, the show does have a few rough areas. The politics come across as a little much and a little too convenient sometimes, and some of the characters are a bit thinly drawn until the brain-destroying plot really starts kicking, and for the life of me I have no idea how they plan on getting a second, third, or fourth season out of all of this, if it ever comes to that. But those complaints feel a little silly now that I actually see them all on the screen in front of me, in large part because of the thing I mentioned in the first paragraph about a space rock filled with evil alien ants crashing to Earth and resulting in an Invasion of the Body Snatchers scenario in Congress. I feel like a summer show with that kind of plot should really only be judged on one criteria: Is it fun?
So far, yup.
BrainDead premieres Monday, June 13 at 10 p.m.