The Brink premiere react: Political satire without the laughs
It’s tough not to feel at least some level of disappointment after watching The Brink’s premiere. With such a talented cast on screen and a relatively unique plot and structure for a comedy, HBO’s new political satire has a lot going for it. Unfortunately, its attempts to make all of that satire actually funny fail as often as Tim Robbins’ Walter Larson asks for a drink in the premiere.
The Brink tells the story of a worldwide crisis from three points of view, as a powder keg of unrest is set to go off in the Middle East. With enough threats of political turmoil and nuclear warheads, the world is left on the, er, brink of what could be World War III. The story is viewed from the highest levels of the U.S. government, following Secretary of State Walter Larson (Tim Robbins), and its lowest levels, as Foreign Service officer Alex Talbot (Jack Black) tries to make a name for himself in Pakistan (even though no one really wants him around). Last but definitely not least is Zeke Tilson (Pablo Schreiber), a naval pilot who happens to be dealing drugs to his crewmates on his stationed ship in the Red Sea.
Their lives, as stressful as they may all be, take a turn for the worse when a coup overthrows the government in Pakistan. Walter and the Cabinet deliberate with the president about what steps to take when they receive word the new leader is preparing to move the country’s warheads. Talbot, holing up in his coworker Rafiq’s family home, stumbles upon documents regarding the mental health of the new leader, Umair Zaman (Iqbal Theba). And once the President learns of Zaman’s fragile mind state, he decides to send in bombers to specific sites with Zeke in the pilot’s seat. Unfortunately, Zeke is high on his own supply.
The Brink moves along at a brisk clip, hopping around the globe and never settling too long to let any of the three perspectives drag. But in its desire to be a sharp, speedy political comedy like the show previously in its timeslot, Veep, most of what The Brink’s characters say doesn’t come with much wit.
The point of view struggling the most is the normally great Tim Robbins as Walter. The character flipped from being a bumbling official with too much power to someone who knows what they’re doing but happens to be a blowhard throughout the episode, sometimes in the very same scene. And the fuzzy characterization made jokes about his bad habits or fraught relationships with his coworkers feel more sad commentaries on his efficacy rather than lines to be laughed at.
As for Talbot’s character in the premiere, if you know what a standard Jack Black performance looks like, that’s about what is on screen here. More interesting to his story is Rafiq (Aasif Mandvi), whose family includes a popular author and a psychiatrist who treated Zaman. Even as Talbot stole files on Zaman from Rafiq’s father, I was more interested in the dynamics of his family as they dealt with near-constant unrest in their lives.
The one bright spot of the three leads, in the premiere at least, is Pablo Schreiber. The Actor Formerly Known As Pornstache is often amusing and charming as Zeke. His life is falling apart, with his ex who sends him drugs to sell telling him she can’t get more at the moment to discovering he’s gotten a public affairs officer pregnant. It all culminates, after he and his co-pilot Glenn Taylor (Eric Ladin) take a few pills from Zeke’s supply, with the two on video conference with the president and dropping bombs of the f–k variety, not the explosive kind.
Zeke is perhaps on screen the least, more time given to Walter’s not-so-amusing battles in the war room and Talbot doing anything he can to make a name for himself. These two plotlines in the premiere evoke Dr. Strangelove early and often, but only for how similar the two are in structure and general subject matter. Sadly, little of The Brink‘s humor comes close to the still relevant humor of Dr. Strangelove.
And yet, I’m compelled to keep watching. The Brink suffers from replacing one of the most joke-filled series currently on TV. Even removing Veep from the equation, HBO’s latest doesn’t open with a sure enough step. But there are so many talented and likeable comedians on screen that I can’t say I didn’t enjoy watching them. I simply didn’t find it all that fun outside of a few bright spots, and yet I’m willing to give this crew another shot. Whether the world of The Brink is ending, hopefully the premiere is simply the whimper before the bang.