[This is a review of The Brink season 1, episode 10. There will be SPOILERS.]
You wouldn’t expect a series so in love with its own tepid sense of brinkmanship to turn into another example of blue-sky television, but that’s exactly what HBO’s disappointing geopolitical satire The Brink turns out to be, as it wraps up season 1 with an episode whose title, ‘There Will Be Consequences,’ provides the only genuine reason to laugh.
For 10 weeks, the show has played with the idea of pending nuclear war, thanks to the broadly drawn might-is-right policy of various nations around the world. The series struggled week-in and week-out to force its thinly drawn characters into the predictable machinations of a plot that was more concerned with arriving at an inevitable conclusion than it was with creating any palpable sense of pressure or urgency – which, even within the structure of a comedy, should be present when the topic at hand is something as dire as the complete and utter nuclear annihilation of the world.
Instead, The Brink – which so clearly wanted to be Dr. Strangelove, or at the very least, In the Loop – makes several pivotal mistakes. The first is its failure to take its subject matter seriously enough to afford it some semblance of nuance and tension, while also being funny. You know, like Dr. Strangelove. The second is that the series is clearly convinced two of its more obnoxious characters (i.e., Alex Talbot and Walter Larson) are plucky heroes of the story, it misses a crucial opportunity to say something (anything) about the sloppy state of politics and world affairs, choosing instead to focus on the most obvious sex, drug, or bodily function-related joke possible.
This need to glorify characters like Tim Robbins‘ oversexed Walter Larson or Jack Black’s graceless Alex Talbot only rendered them flat throughout the entirety of the season. The plot routinely forced Larson and Talbot to navigate one increasingly dire and yet easily resolved obstacle after another, rather than pausing to round them out in a way that might have made them anything but the smug caricatures they were presented as. The end result of this pervasive one-dimensionality is a glib, perfunctorily cynical tone that might have worked if the writers had something compelling to say, or if it felt as though anything was ever actually at stake.
And after so many weeks of maneuvering, the plot is boiled down so that Zeke (Pablo Schreiber) and Glenn (Eric Laden) can drunkenly engage a Pakistani jet fighter, Larson can singlehandedly manage the various nations of world via teleconference, and Talbot and Rafiq (Mandvi) can work to persuade the sociopathic General Zaman (Iqbal Theba) to call back the very pilot(s) being chased down. To its credit, there’s a brief moment when the finale allows the audience to think the story won’t unfold in the most conventional manner possible – when Zaman kills himself with Talbot’s gun, and the jet fighter is revealed to have been a decoy. It’s then that The Brink teeters on the verge of an actual surprise, one that would disprove the series’ disheartening aversion to risk and uncertainty, but those twists prove to be two more low-rising obstacles for the heroes to casually step over.
The end result is a middling half hour that concludes a middling season by having Zeke and Glenn successfully take both planes out of the sky, sacrificing their aircraft in the process, while Larson proves to be a talented multitasker, preventing a chain reaction of retaliatory nuclear strikes and getting busy with his wife (the criminally underused Carla Gugino). Talbot and Rafiq essentially do nothing but inadvertently help Larson figure out there are two planes headed for Tel Aviv and then scream warnings in English through a crowded marketplace in Islamabad. But they do get to proclaim their friendship for one another, so, in the end, it seems the real brink was the brink of love.
It’s not until the episode’s coda shows a young boy stumble upon the wreckage of the Pakistani plane that The Brink makes any attempt to say something constructive and analytical about the inevitable cost of nuclear armament and geopolitical one-upmanship. And, oddly, enough, it effectively does so without any of the primary cast appearing on screen. But even then, the moment a nuclear warhead is loaded onto the back of a truck and taken to some undisclosed location in Eritrea, it feels less like the writers are making a statement about the cyclical nature of power and the ever-present threat of war, than they are just propping open a door for season 2.
Maybe the next season will find a way to utilize that threat in a more compelling and humorous manner, one that shows greater discipline when it comes to threading a satirical comedic tone through some rather grim subject matter. Good satire levels a critique on its subject, whether it’s a person, a place, or a situation. The Brink only goes so far as to provide its audience with the person, the place, and the situation, making a handful of surface-level jokes at their expense. But ultimately, it’s too timid to make the grand statement it thinks it is capable of.
The Brink season 2 will premiere in 2016 on HBO.