Review: The Brink, HBO’s New Political Satire

In The Brink, Jack Black tries to make nuclear war funny
Illustration: Paul Windle for Bloomberg Businessweek

The opening credits of HBO’s The Brink feature a giant Monty Python finger reaching down from the heavens to push a red button that will set off global thermonuclear war. A mad Pakistani general has mounted a coup, seizing control of the country’s arsenal and threatening to, among other things, annihilate Israel.

U.S. political leaders are naturally alarmed—except for the one guy whose job is preventing global disaster. Secretary of State Walter Larson (Tim Robbins, who also produces and directs), whom we first meet naked and tied to a bed, appears to regard the crisis as an intrusion upon a life of Scotch, Cambodian hookers, and auto-asphyxiation.

As heroes go, Larson is fairly odious. His diplomatic energies are focused mainly on seducing young female aides; when his BlackBerry falls into a urinal, his long-suffering assistant must reach around him and fish it out. But it soon emerges that Larson is the only bulwark against Armageddon. Handsome, empty-headed President Navarro (or is it President Rubio?) is in way over his head and torn between the pleadings of his bomb-crazed, Cheney-esque defense secretary and Larson’s calls for restraint. He may be a raging sexist, but it’s a nuclear crisis and we can’t be too choosy.

Neither can Larson, whose only contact with the regime is Jack Black—the comedian, and co-producer of the show, who’s made a career playing the same kind of mugging, impish man-child. Here he’s low-level State Department functionary Alex Talbot, a dimwitted stoner, who’s about to be fired for gross incompetence when he stumbles into the rogue general’s clutches. While trying to score some weed at a crowded bazaar, he’s captured, waterboarded, then told to secure ransom and satellites from the U.S. government under the threat of death.

Given the network and subject matter, The Brink (airing Sundays at 10:30 p.m.) clearly is meant to be the foreign policy counterpart to HBO’s Emmy-winning Veep. The conceit is the same, ushering viewers into the inner sanctums of Washington power to lay bare the comic dysfunction, only here the setting is the Situation Room. HBO paid a fortune to make The Brink, rushed it into development, and is promoting it heavily. It’s easy to see why: Veep set the standard for political satire. Why not help the franchise grow?

Veep, which focuses on the vice president’s office, owes its success to the way it deftly lampoons recognizable Washington tropes. There’s the soulless pollster-consultant Kent Davison, whom Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) pegs as an “autistic lumberjack” and is elsewhere cited admiringly as “the Pol Pot of pie charts.” Every White House has a guy like that. Unfortunately, there’s less humor to be mined from international diplomacy—a dry topic even when it doesn’t include such downers as The Brink’s beheading threats and world-destroying weapons. The show’s creators seem to know this, so the politics quickly become the backdrop to, rather than the source of, the comedy.

If HBO was trying to replicate Veep’s sharp, fast-paced humor, Black was an odd casting choice. Talbot’s cretinism is his defining character trait, so his witticisms tend to be duds. (In one episode, realizing he’s about to be carried off by an angry Muslim mob, he wonders, “Where’s a drone when you need one?”) The writers built a show to suit Black’s style, heavy on stoner references and scatological jokes.

Robbins grows modestly more likable after a few episodes. He may be a lech, but he’s a lech with savoir-faire. The show’s brightest comedian is former Daily Show With Jon Stewart correspondent Aasif Mandvi, who plays Black’s put-upon driver, torn between his disapproving traditional Pakistani family and a begrudging fondness for the ugly American he shepherds around.

But The Brink can’t get past its own identity crisis: It’s bro humor masquerading as political satire—more The Interview, Seth Rogen’s North Korea parody that prompted the Sony hacking scandal, than Dr. Strangelove, which Robbins has cited as an inspiration. But what it really wants to be is Harold & Kumar Go to Islamabad

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