[This is a review of The Brink season 1, episode 1. There will be SPOILERS.]
When one considers HBO’s new Sunday night line-up that includes True Detective with all of its A-list stars, Ballers with Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson, and The Brink, starring Jack Black and Tim Robbins, it’s clear that the network has banked considerably on the idea of star power to get it through the summer. And while True Detective has the appeal of an anthology and a widely popular first season to fall back on, the other two comedies are ostensibly left to fend for themselves.
To combat this, Ballers takes the “If you liked Entourage, you’ll like us” route, The Brink, from writers Kim and Roberto Benabib, takes a far more disappointing “we hope you don’t remember Dr. Strangelove, because we totally borrowed everything from it” approach. Fans of Stanley Kubrick’s black-and-white masterpiece will immediately see the similarities between the 1964 comedy and this startlingly inelegant and unfunny political satire.
The most glaring similarities lie in the multi-character, threaded storyline structure that is centered on the ostensible end of the world. Jack Black heads up one thread as Alex Talbot, a low-level diplomat assigned to Pakistan and his embassy guide Rafiq Massoud, played by Aasif Mandvi. After Talbot strong-arms Rafiq into driving him to the market, so he can score some weed, the two find themselves in the middle of a military coup, wherein a mentally unstable former United States asset seizes control of the government and its nuclear weapons.
Had the series been just Black and Mandvi scampering around Pakistan, while the country was in the middle of great political upheaval, The Brink might have convincingly pulled off a mildly humorous spoof of Showtime’s Homeland, so long as the goal was to make comedy with all the dexterity and edge of the Scary Movie franchise. Instead, there are two other prominent threads that make up the main narrative, and unfortunately, neither one offers any more laughs than the other.
In Washington, the series focuses on Walter Larson (Tim Robbins) the oversexed Secretary of State, who seemingly spends more time with high-priced call girls than in meetings with President Julian Navarro (Esai Morales). While Robbins certainly has the comedic chops and the satirical knowhow to make Larson more than a one-note joke, the script doesn’t seem to be interested in allowing the actor such a chance. In the pilot episode, Larson spends most of his time waffling between arguing with the war-hungry Secretary of Defense Pierce Gray (Geoff Pierson) and cajoling his assistant Kendra Peterson (Maribeth Monroe) into getting him a little hair of the dog and some takeout menus.
Finally, there’s the much broader comedy of two drug-addled fighter pilots Zeke “Z-Pak” Tilson (Pablo Schreiber) and Glenn Taylor (Eric Ladin). Zeke sells prescription drugs to pretty much everyone on his ship as a way of managing his crippling debt. While it’s rote, this makes his character more clear-cut than any of the others. Zeke has a clear want and a way of getting what he wants, his involvement in the ongoing and rapidly escalating world crisis is the obstacle keeping him from obtaining his want. Again, it’s all pretty perfunctory stuff that only produces the mildest of laughs, but the Schreiber and Ladin make for a ridiculous team that may be the series’ unlikely comedic savior.
While the problem is certainly one of a lack of solid laughs in the first half-hour, it’s also one of consistency. The series and the Benabibs don’t seem to know whether Black and Robbins’ characters are supposed to be competent in their jobs, or simple buffoons caught up in an untenable situation. Black begins the episode announcing his desire to achieve something more, to make a difference in the world, but by the end of things, he’s mostly reduced to staring at Mandvi’s sister and listening while Rafiq’s family accuses him of being CIA.
Similarly, Larson vacillates between being just another cynical womanizer with a drinking problem and a shrewd politician. The move with the takeout menus acts as an outward demonstration of how aloof Robbins’ character is, but it works to calm the frayed nerves inside the situation room. And while that level of smarts would serve the character in the long-run – especially in terms of making him more likable – Robbins isn’t afforded a chance to play him as anything but a grating personality with an occasionally keen insight in the minds (and stomachs) of his fellow politicians.
All the inconsistencies and lack of genuine laughs aside, The Brink ultimately boils down to a single question: What, exactly, is the series’ target? The way the humor is set up and made deliberately pointed makes it clear the object is to lampoon something, but what the show is aiming at remains unclear. The three main threads seem to be the most obvious targets of the writers’ barbs, but even then, the show gets too caught up in the juvenile antics and embarrassing behavior of its characters to actually make a coherent commentary on something like the futility of war, or the failures of American diplomacy. Like everything else from the writing to the characterization, the focus of the series is far too indiscriminate to deliver anything meaningful – laughs or otherwise.
There are laughs (nervous laughs, but laughs nonetheless) to be had in the realization that we are a hair’s breadth from total nuclear annihilation at any given moment, and the people placed in the position to keep that from happening may be grossly incompetent. If you’re looking for proof that this sort of dire situation can be funny, do yourself a favor and watch Dr. Strangelove, because those laughs are mostly absent here.
The Brink continues next Sunday with ‘Half-Cocked’ @10:30pm on HBO.