‘The Brink’: TV Review
A starry cast pokes fun at world diplomacy in HBO’s off-kilter, and off-tempo, new comedy.
In Stanley Kubrick’s seminal war comedy, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), Sterling Hayden’s bonkers Gen. Jack D. Ripper lamented the poisoning of “our precious bodily fluids” by a communist insurgency. In HBO’s Strangelove-esque satire, The Brink (a 10-episode series airing in weekly half-hour installments), times have changed somewhat: The enemy, you could say now, is all of us, and our bodily fluids are reacting accordingly.
Indeed, there’s enough barfing, pants-soiling and, in the case of Tim Robbins’ horndog Secretary of State Walter Larson, kidney-stone passing to qualify as a harbinger of the end times. (Additionally, one of the supporting characters — a religious-nut embassy head played by John Larroquette — frequently delivers cheery-toned prophetic warnings of the apocalypse.) In truth, the world is only on the verge of annihilation, in large part due to the Keystone Cop-pery of Alex Talbot (Jack Black), a low-level bureaucrat working at the U.S. State Department office in Islamabad.
After he is caught in a riot at the local bazaar while trying to score some primo weed, Talbot is forced to hide out at the home of his sarcastic driver, Rafiq (Aasif Mandvi). While there, he discovers some papers written by Rafiq’s psychiatrist uncle about Gen. Umair Zaman (Iqbal Theba), the leader of an in-progress coup that is threatening to topple the country. One half-assedly sent fax later, and Talbot finds himself at the center of a global crisis that also involves Larson, a warmongering secretary of defense (Geoff Pierson), a frazzled POTUS (Esai Morales) and a pair of hot-dogging aircraft-carrier pilots — Zeke (Pablo Schreiber) and Glenn (Eric Ladin) — who unwittingly dig the U.S. into a deeper hole after they shoot down one of India’s drone satellites while high on morphine.
A busy plot, this — courtesy of creators Roberto and Kim Benabib. And there’s plenty more where that came from: Also in the mix are, among others, Larson’s chilly, career-obsessed wife (Carla Gugino); an exploding cow; the Israeli and Indian prime ministers, both easily insulted; a very well-hung D.C. bartender (Christian Gehring), whose semierect junk gets several jaw-dropping close-ups; and (in one of the few truly gut-busting sequences) a pair of eccentric British expatriates (Michelle Gomez and Rob Brydon) who say bizarre things like, “Hands are nature’s forks!”
The situations are frenetic — though rarely funny. Comedy is, in large part, about good timing, and just about every joke in The Brink feels like it’s half a beat or more off. Worse, both of the show’s leads always seem like they’re trying to get a laugh instead of keying in to a natural comic rhythm. Black basically makes the same bug-eyed constipation face throughout the five episodes sent out for review. Robbins, meanwhile, arches his eyebrows, constantly drops F-bombs under his breath and, every so often, inelegantly attempts some lowbrow slapstick related to his character’s urinary-track blockage. Neither Schreiber nor Ladin fare much better. They trip out in a cockpit in the first episode—poorly helmed by Austin Powers and Meet the Parents/Fockers alum Jay Roach, who hands off the directorial reins subsequently—and it only goes downhill (i.e. projectile vomiting and other excrescences) from there.
The Brink aims to poke fun at world diplomacy by insisting that almost everyone at the highest levels of power is a fool focused on his or her basest desires. In the right hands, it could be as provocative as the Kubrick film it emulates. But as it stands, it barely would pass muster as a back-half sketch on SNL.