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‘BrainDead’ review: ‘Good Wife’ creators’ D.C. satire flails wildly

Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Aaron Tveit in

Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Aaron Tveit in "BrainDead." Credit: CBS / Macall Polay

WHEN | WHERE Premieres Monday night at 10 on CBS/2


WHAT IT’S ABOUT Ants from outer space have begun to invade the brains of people living in Washington, D.C. Sometimes those who are afflicted suffer a grievous fate (their heads explode). Most of the time, they just become extreme and unyielding in their politics. Like most, Laurel Healy (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) — who has come to Washington to work for her brother Luke (Danny Pino), a Democratic senator — has no idea what’s going on. (Their heads haven't been invaded by the ants, by the way, although some have made their way into Laurel's kitchen.)

Neither does her new friend, Gareth Ritter (Aaron Tveit), top aide to boozy GOP senator Red Wheatus (Tony Shalhoub). She then reaches out to eccentric genius Gustav Triplett (Johnny Ray Gill), who suspects the worst — brain-eating bugs of the ant variety. This summer series was created by Robert and Michelle King of “The Good Wife.”

MY SAY The Kings are great TV producers, among the best in television. Like all TV producers, they also have their comfort zone. Ants? That’s not their comfort zone. Horror? Sci fi? Those, either. Washington? They’re New Yorkers, or at least New York-based. Satire — the sort of full-throated, lacerating, scabrous satire forged by fury and idealism? They are elegant stylists, not Jon Stewart.

That “BrainDead” flails and flails pretty wildly shouldn’t therefore come as too much of a surprise. What is a surprise is why no one anticipated some of the obvious speed bumps. CBS — which scored spectacularly with “Under the Dome” and considerably less so with “Extant” — probably hoped it was getting a less weird “Mars Attacks!” summer trifle. The Kings probably thought they were getting network carte blanche to gut the Republican-held Congress.

But no commercial network — CBS above all — gladly hands over its air to even esteemed showrunners who plan that kind of assault. Commercial network TV is about putting the masses to sleep, not arming them with pitchforks, especially in this uniquely perilous election year. So instead of carte blanche, the Kings got compromise: a muted, watered-down compromise, without teeth, fury or even an intelligible storyline. Satires don’t mind confusing plots, but they loathe “compromise.”

Besides the title, “BrainDead” hints at its intentions in various ways, most subtle, a few clever. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton sound bites spew from various TV sets, while a blond Barbie-anchor, Misty Alise (Megan Hilty), cheerfully reports the latest head explosion. Those spontaneous eruptions are certainly mysterious, although they do occur when the head’s former owner actually starts to think.

Speaking of which: The Cars’ irrepressibly annoying 1984 hit, “You Might Think,” plays whenever the ants come marching in. Incidentally, that was one of the great earworm songs of all time.

Also: Those whose heads are invaded by the ants suddenly become serious teetotalers, and never so much as sip a chardonnay. Could that be a dig at a leading candidate who likewise never drinks? Could be.

Neither Democrats nor Republicans are singled out for a prime-time paddling here. Instead, in that spirit of compromise, the Kings’ balanced message is that extremism in both parties is to blame for systemic dysfunction in Washington.

Even ants — real ones — already knew that, or have heard competing versions from either Fox News or MSNBC. But with the exception of those self-detonating heads, that’s about as shocking as “BrainDead” gets.

BOTTOM LINE Not exactly satire, not exactly horror, “BrainDead” is not exactly much fun, either.

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