BrainDead Mondays, 10 p.m., CBS.
A sci-fi political comedy is pretty much the last thing you’d expect as a follow-up to The Good Wife from creators Robert and Michelle King, but after seven seasons at the helm of CBS’ most acclaimed show, they’ve clearly earned enough goodwill to do whatever they want. And BrainDead is certainly surprising, both from the Kings and from CBS, which generally shies away from any show that can’t be described in a straightforward, single-sentence pitch. BrainDead isn’t a procedural or a sitcom, and it’s weirder even than recent CBS summer sci-fi shows like Under the Dome, Extant and Zoo (which returns for its second season at the end of this month). The show’s jarring mix of tones and genres often doesn’t work, but it’s rarely obvious or predictable, and that’s more than can be said for most shows on CBS.
The underrated Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who’s been the reliable anchor of genre movies like 10 Cloverfield Lane and the remake of The Thing, stars as Laurel Healy, an idealistic documentary filmmaker who’s selling out by working for her slick U.S. senator brother Luke (Danny Pino) in Washington. The political material is part The West Wing, part Veep, sometimes focused on serious issues of governance, but more often cynically mocking its absurdity. Winstead’s assured performance helps gloss over the unevenness of the writing, which lurches from political commentary to sci-fi mystery, as ant-like aliens start taking over the brains of various people throughout Washington. Apparently these aliens love partisan bickering, because everyone who’s infected immediately becomes a dedicated political hardliner (equally divided between Democrats and Republicans).
Sometimes the show plays this strange concept for whimsical comedy (including “previously on” recaps delivered via song), but just as often it’s played straight, with moments that are meant to be scary or suspenseful as the aliens infect more and more people’s brains (and, in some cases, cause them to explode). The same goes for the political storylines, which include up-to-the-minute real-life references (Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are name-checked frequently), but also ridiculously heightened depictions of bureaucracy. The Kings deserve credit for taking a risk and not just putting out another legal drama, but if anything BrainDead isn’t weird enough. By hedging its bets, it ends up in an awkward middle ground between straightforward drama and something more original.