TV’s contempt for D.C. has become so popular that it’s now available in different genre flavors. There’s the saltily nihilistic comedy of Veep, the tartly melodramatic romance of Scandal, and the astringently mordant drama of House of Cards. No matter who you are, the networks promise they’ve got a unique taste to match your Washington weariness.
The one promised by the new sci-fi satire BrainDead (CBS), unfortunately, seems to be vanilla with a sprinkling of chocolate-covered ants. Debuting tonight, the follow-up series from The Good Wife creators Robert and Michelle King is disappointingly familiar, especially in its genre beats. The alien-invasion drama does boast a jagged political allegory and a fantastic lead in Mary Elizabeth Winstead, but, judging by the first three installments, it’s never as suspenseful, funny, or current as it strives to be.
Among all the D.C. shows, BrainDead hews closest to our political universe, with Hillary Clinton and especially Donald Trump appearing in the background, spouting carnivalesque nonsense. The series’s hyper-specific target is the extremist partisanship that’s taken over Washington in recent years: America’s leaders are too busy shutting down the government in a lose-lose game of brinksmanship and pointing fingers at each other in front of news cameras to realize that the planet is in mortal danger. (The blithely ignored existential threat is a capacious metaphor, but the Kings seem to be the most concerned about climate change.)
Winstead stars as Laurel, an idealistic documentary filmmaker from a Kennedyesque Democratic dynasty. Promised the funds for her next film by her father (Zach Grenier) if she spends six months working as a staffer for her philandering majority-whip brother (Danny Pino), Laurel is caught between doing her part to unfuck the government and investigating a rash of spontaneous head explosions in the city. She’s set up for failure on both counts: The extraterrestrial insects that crawl into people’s brains and take over their personalities (and musical preferences, so that Laurel can more easily tell who has a contaminated cranium) are only slightly more callous than the calculating politicos who intentionally deaden themselves inside so they can kick around a little girl with terminal cancer in the latest round of political football.
The D.C. parody, then, is aimed well, if not particularly sharp or timely. Laurel’s calls for compassion for the 100,000 federal employees booted off work are faultless, but from the standpoint of this unprecedented presidential election season, the 2013 government shutdown feels like 20,000 bizarre and tragic things ago. Even less compelling are the aliens themselves, despite their insectoid resemblance to the current Zika menace. Taking the form of heavily pixelated ants, they’re to be admired more for their dedication than for their strategy. Casting a steroidal spell so that already politicized folk transform into the insufferable people unfollowed on Facebook doesn’t exactly sound like a winning colonization plan in a country where barely a majority of the citizenry care enough about their elected leaders to vote for president. The liberal friend of Laurel’s who can’t stop rattling off glowing statistics about socialist Denmark is a fun, sharp observation — but the show needs a lot more of these to get us through the entirely predictable expansion of the alien empire.
At least BrainDead hasn’t entirely given up on humanity. It’s a hopeful plea for a functional two-party system with the necessary compromises and bridge-building to make it work. Laurel herself fraternizes across party lines — much to her dad’s horror — with the high-ranking staffer (Aaron Tveit, handsome in that too-chiseled, frat-president way) of a Republican senator (Tony Shalhoub). The Kings’ probably inadvertent vision of oligarchical bipartisan democracy here — the further consolidation of wealthy white people already in power — isn’t exactly ideal. But it’s certainly preferable to the moral race to the bottom we have right now.