DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Tonight on CBS, a new summer series premieres from Robert and Michelle King, creators of "The Good Wife." The new show is called "BrainDead." And it's a political satire that's also a science-fiction comedy.
Our TV critic David Bianculli says it's unusual not only because it's a mashup of different genres, but because of its tone. Here's his review.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: Remember that meteorite that smashed into Russia a few years ago with enough people filming it as it came to earth to cause a brief internet sensation? Robert and Michelle King certainly do. The creators of "The Good Wife" use some of those images in the opening moments of their new CBS series "BrainDead" to set up a bizarre but very enjoyable hypothetical scenario.
Here's the weird what if. What if a meteorite like that one is recovered by Russians and forwarded to the United States for further study and eventual display in the Smithsonian? And what if that happens right at the start of a government shutdown, allowing the outer space rock to burst open undetected, spilling out a veritable army of ant-like space bugs? And what if those bugs have the power and the inclination to creep around inside the Beltway and into the ears of politicians and their staffers, eating and mutating their brains? And what if those brain mutations result in politicians who are partisan in the extreme and extreme in the extreme?
All this fantasy plays out against the real current presidential campaign, with actual speeches by actual candidates playing in the background on the TV cable news shows everyone is watching. It's part "Invasion Of The Body Snatchers," mixed with the playful, comic edge of "Mars Attacks!" but also with the political insider maneuvering of "The West Wing."
Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who's instantly likable and lovable, plays an aspiring documentary filmmaker named Laurel Healy. Her brother Luke, played by Danny Pino, is a Democratic senator.
Laurel agrees to work for her brother for six months. And she instantly becomes the point around which all other plots revolve. She's eventually the one who first notices the odd behavior of some of the people she encounters, the ones who have been possessed by alien bugs. She's also the one who gets a chance on her first day at work to field an offer from a Republican staffer named Gareth, played by Aaron Tveit, who just might help avert the impending government shutdown.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BRAINDEAD")
AARON TVEIT: (As Gareth Ritter) I'm Gareth Ritter, legislative director for Senator Wheatus. Red Wheatus - he's the Republican senator from Maryland.
MARY ELIZABETH WINSTEAD: (As Laurel Healy) Yes, yes, I know. I mean, I don't - I don't know. But - would you like me to get a more senior staff person?
TVEIT: (As Gareth Ritter) No, I don't need senior. I need the sister. I'm here to offer a deal on behalf of Senator Wheatus. Actually, I'm not here at all.
WINSTEAD: (As Laurel Healy) You're not?
TVEIT: (As Gareth Ritter) No. And if your brother tries to use this, if he tries to get mileage out of this by embarrassing the Republicans, we'll deny this meeting ever happened.
WINSTEAD: (As Laurel Healy) OK, I think I should get someone...
TVEIT: (As Gareth Ritter) Ms. Healy, there are now 90 minutes until the government shuts down. My boss is ready to cross the island, vote with the Democrats. All he needs is a $48 million earmark for autism studies. It's a pet cause of his.
WINSTEAD: (As Laurel Healy) OK, seriously, this is my first day...
TVEIT: (As Gareth Ritter) I'm out the door. This is my cell. Get your brother's agreement in 90 minutes and call me or my boss will be forced to stand with his Republican colleagues. And if anybody finds out about this, the deal goes away. Do you understand?
WINSTEAD: (As Laurel Healy) No.
TVEIT: (As Gareth Ritter) Ms. Healy, 100,000 government jobs depend on you getting to your brother in the next 90 minutes and convincing him, to take this deal. So if I were you, I'd run.
BIANCULLI: The Republican senator making that offer is Red Wheatus, played by Tony Shalhoub, who injects lots of fun from the start. So does Zach Grenier, who played David Lee on "The Good Wife," as Laura's manipulative father. But other enjoyable elements show up a bit later. Starting with episode two, for example, singer-songwriter Jonathan Coulton provides a new opening theme song each week, more of a recap, really, singing about what's happened so far. It's such a clever idea, I want to play some of it, but only the part that recounts what I've told you already. It's not only the lyrics I hope you'll enjoy. It's the tone.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BRAINDEAD")
UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Previously on "BrainDead."
JONATHAN COULTON: (Singing) Some kind of meteor came down. No one knows where it's from. They shipped it off so they could study it in Washington. Guess what? It's filled with space bugs. Now they're loose and eating people's brains. Poor Laurel only wants to make her documentaries. She's out of money so she works for Luke, her brother. He's a Democratic senator. She listens to constituents complain. Gareth is working for Red Wheatus who's a senator, a southerner, Republican, a drunk. Government is shutting down until they find a workaround. Deal they make looks like a slamdunk.
BIANCULLI: A theme song that updates you every week - that really makes me laugh. So does the view out of Laurel's ground-floor office window. It's a statue of a soldier astride a horse. But her view is dominated by the horses behind. "BrainDead" is full of little touches like that. And, like the two rival news networks that everyone on the show watches - one is liberal, anchored by shorthaired brunette, the other is conservative, anchored by a long-haired blonde. And she's played by Megan Hilty, one of several "Good Wife" occasional players who show up here.
"BrainDead' is loaded with intriguing little elements, even if they're not instantly explained. Why do the possessed-by-alien people love listening to '80s rock in general and "You Might Think" by The Cars in particular? And if another of the side effects of alien possession is stubborn extremism, how is anyone supposed to be able to tell the possessed politicians from the others? After seeing three episodes, I have no idea.
But what I do know is that "BrainDead" is on my weekly viewing list. And unlike most of the other hour-long series on my list these days, it's not dark or depressing. It's fun. And this summer, especially during a real-life presidential campaign and such horrific breaking news events, that counts for a lot.
DAVIES: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching, and teaches television and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: On the next FRESH AIR, we discuss "O.J.: Made In America," a new seven and a half hour documentary series about the O.J. Simpson trial and the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman. It premiered Saturday on ABC and runs this week on ESPN. We'll talk with the filmmaker Ezra Edelman and Jeffrey, Toobin author of the book "The Run Of His Life: The People V. O.J. Simpson." Hope you can join us.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. John Sheehan directed today's show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.