There Are Better Ways to Spend Your Time Than The Brink

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Jack Black in The Brink. Photo: HBO

Created by Kim and Roberto Benabib, the alleged political satire The Brink is a throwback to the early days of HBO, when the quality of the cable channel’s programming mattered less than the novelty of being able to show men on TV doing drugs, having sex with hookers, throwing F-bomb-laden insults at each other, and generally carrying on as if everything we were told of value was really just a big joke on the naïve, and that life was all about seizing power and getting laid, not necessarily in that order. It’s been a while since I’ve seen so much acting, writing, and directing talent, and such top-notch production values, expended on behalf of a show that makes such a weak impression. Set during the run-up to nuclear apocalypse, The Brink aims for the sort of ebullient-yet-scathing energy of In the Loop (or its American successor Veep, which, unfortunately for The Brink, airs on HBO), but the result feels closer to a political version of Entourage or Arli$$. It’s just a bunch of shitty people being shitty to each other, while decent people stand by sputtering.

The key locations are Islamabad, where a mediocre, party-crazy American State Department flunky Alex Talbot (Jack Black) is trying to claw his way up the political ladder; an aircraft carrier in the Atlantic, where a fighter pilot named Zeke (Pablo Schreiber) is secretly dealing drugs that keep his crewmates from falling asleep during overtime work; and Washington, D.C., where Alex’s boss, Secretary of State Walter Larson (Tim Robbins), is muddling through White House situation room meetings and occasionally sneaking off to bang prostitutes. A possibly world-ending crisis comes about when Pakistan’s government collapses. This drives the country’s erstwhile ruler, the mentally ill General Umair Zaman (Iqbal Theba), to seize power and crush his enemies, threatens the security of the country’s nukes, and makes India and China nervous enough to mass ground troops. One of many plot contrivances puts Alex in a position to escalate the crisis: He stays at the home of his driver, Rafiq (Aasif Mandvi), whose uncle just happens to be the general’s former psychiatrist, and just happens to have the general’s medical records, which Alex then steals and faxes to the White House to curry favor with Walter. I am willing to accept almost any contrivance if it’s funny, and this one really isn’t, even when the shrink is beating up Jack Black with a cane. And even if it were funny, the scene would’ve lost me at “fax machine.” Seriously? How old is this script?

The story escalates with each passing episode, becoming more and more dire and ridiculous. This would be pleasing if The Brink demonstrated a Kubrickian or Iannuccian control over tone and subject matter and had more on its mind than being outrageous. But it doesn’t. There’s nothing to any of the action but venality, stupidity, and ambition, and the cynicism that’s been shellacked over every scene and line serves only to freeze every episode at its most smugly knowing. Robbins, an occasionally great actor who too often comes off as if he thinks himself superior to the characters he’s playing, is at his most off-putting here, a smirk in a suit (and occasionally restraints). “The world is run by assholes, my friend,” Alex tells Rafiq. This seems less like a hard but useful bit of worldly wisdom than an excuse for why there are only two kinds of characters on this show — hateful jerks who run roughshod over everyone (while delighting us with their outrageousness, in theory) and “nice guys” whose moral impotence might be funny if they’d been given characters to play (they haven’t). Here and there, you get a throwaway line suggesting that, at the very least, the show’s writers have done some homework — Zeke justifies his drug-dealing arrangement with his pharmacist ex-wife by pointing out that he’s “flying a $65 million fighter jet for minimum fuckin’ wage” — but these moments would be more effective if they didn’t feel shoehorned into scenes between characters who are more genitals-plus-attitudes than fully formed comic characters. A lot of the allegedly scathing Washington humor doesn’t feel too different from what you see on every other HBO series set in Hollywood. A powerful man who likes to be tied up while he has sex with Asian hookers, and whose wife (Carla Gugino) is a coldly ambitious bitch who’s sleeping with her super-hung personal trainer? When was the last time touches like that felt new or daring?

Jay Roach, who helmed the Austin Powers films as well as HBO’s political docudramas Recount and Game Change, executive-produced the show and directed the pilot. The pilot has a few vividly directed moments, as does the second episode, which Robbins directed, and the third and the fourth. But breaking an apocalyptic farce into half-hour chunks only underlines the show’s shortcomings; the structure dilutes any momentum the writers and filmmakers can generate and makes you aware that the ratio of bad to good stuff is drastically lopsided. When you watch The Brink, you’re basically digging through a lot of Great Dane poop looking for nickels. There are more productive ways to spend your time.