Culture » June 18, 2015
A Shaky Launch for HBO’s The Brink
The new black comedy about nuclear war misses its target.
For years I’ve been waiting for American film and television to produce the burst of black comedy our dismally stupid era deserves. It’s playing out in real life and media—just write it down and film it!
The Brink is such a good idea for a show. Clearly inspired by Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 masterpiece, Dr. Strangelove: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, HBO’s The Brink, too, is a black comedy about the bumbling road to nuclear holocaust, with World War III kicked off by the knuckleheads operating at every level of American government and the military.
The pilot, written by brothers Roberto and Kim Benabib (Weeds) and directed by series executive producer Jay Roach (Austin Powers), follows the Strangelove model, positioning the main characters at key points in the international clusterfuck that threatens mutually assured destruction.
Tim Robbins (Shawshank Redemption) plays Secretary of State Walter Larson, who is called to an emergency meeting in the Situation Room with President Julian Navarro (Esai Morales), interrupting one of Larson’s regular bondage sessions with a Cambodian call girl. Jack Black is Alex Talbot, a low-level Foreign Service diplomat about to be fired, who suddenly becomes important when he stumbles into an anti-American demonstration in Islamabad and gets arrested as a suspected CIA coup-instigator. Aasif Mandvi (The Daily Show) is Talbot’s driver, Rafiq Massoud, who tries to rescue Talbot because, as he puts it, “I’m the only friend that arrogant little imperialist has!” And Pablo Schreiber (The Wire) is Zeke “Z-Pack” Tilson, a hotshot Navy pilot dealing drugs on the side to keep himself and his sleep-deprived comrades functioning— and to pad out his pitiful Navy salary. Tilson is the corollary to Strangelove’s Major T.J. “King” Kong (Slim Pickens). Following contradictory orders, both fly over targets with potentially apocalyptic consequences.
All are at the mercy of Pakistani General Umair Zaman (Iqbal Theba of Glee), the upstart dictator convinced that American drones have spread electromagnetic energy across Pakistan in “a secret diabolic program to alter the reproductive biology of our girls and emasculate our boys.” As Massoud’s uncle, a psychiatrist watching General Zaman’s screed on TV, says, “Umair Zaman’s certifiable. In fact, I certified him. … Acute episodic schizophrenia— textbook case, really.”
General Zaman is based on the immortal Strangelove character Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper. Ripper was convinced that a Commie plot to put fluoride in American drinking water— in order to weaken “our precious bodily fluids” and render American men impotent— necessitated the retaliatory strike against the Soviet Union that would start World War III.
Sounds promising, right? The plan is for each season to tackle a developing disaster and show how geopolitical dopiness and venality get the world closer to “the brink” of destruction. I’m guessing that the last show ends in mushroom clouds, just like Strangelove.
For years I’ve been waiting for American film and television to produce the burst of black comedy our dismally stupid era deserves. It’s playing out in real life and media—just write it down and film it! But most attempts at black comedy in the past 15 years—Idiocracy, say, or Horrible Bosses—have been so lame as to not register on the black comedy meter. The Brink joins them in toothlessness and missed targets.
How HBO managed to botch this is a mystery. Everyone involved is at fault, as far as I can judge from the first two episodes. The show’s worst sin: It’s not even bleakly funny, and that means the writers, directors and actors are all failing together.
Want proof? Take the exchange in the Situation Room between the hawkish Secretary of Defense Pierce Grey (Geoff Pierson) and the more liberal Larson, which degenerates into a series of “fuck yous” interrupted by the president demanding, “What is it with you two?” Grey mumbles, “He started it.”
Pretty flat and laugh-free. That punchline isn’t even trying to be in the same league as the one delivered by Strangelove’s President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers) to two cabinet members whose bickering has devolved into fisticuffs: “You can’t fight in here—this is the War Room!”
The Brink attempts to make a darkly hilarious impact by creating tension between the formal qualities of the show, shot like a single-camera HBO prestige drama, and the outrageous and absurd events it depicts. That’s not a bad idea. Strangelove was shot documentary style in many scenes, and in others with the hyper-serious, black-and-white formality of the Cold War political dramas of the day. The chilly grandiosity of Strangelove’s War Room makes General “Buck” Turgidson’s rant about the consequences of nuclear war with the USSR crazier and funnier: “Mr. President, I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed. But I do say no more than 10 to 20 million killed, tops. Uh, depending on the breaks.”
But somehow The Brink seems leaden, straining to be edgy in a way that’s often casually racist. For example, Walter Larson’s “Asian call girl” fetish is played for laughs in a miserably unfunny way, such as when the sex worker in the bondage sex scene explains to him that her story about “fleeing Cambodia in a cargo van” wasn’t a sex fantasy, “it was my childhood.” The casting is all wrong: Everyone seems to have been chosen to render the desperate onscreen maneuverings as harmless as a pillow fight. Tim Robbins is a soft actor, seeming vaguely nice and menschy even while getting caught stark naked with a call girl, or when attending a Situation Room meeting hungover and demanding spiked orange juice: “Jesus Christ, do you think LBJ fought Vietnam in this room sober?”
Jack Black seems to move within a set of ironic quotation marks. He’s good in all-out comedies where he plays someone performing his life with exaggerated brio (Tropic Thunder, School of Rock, High Fidelity), but he’s never convincing when doing conventional acting, which many scenes in The Brink require.
Aasif Mandvi combines the problems of Robbins and Black: He exudes nice harmlessness, and he’s a comedian more than an actor. He and Black drift through scenarios unmoored, like comedians in skits who are just about to turn to the camera and comment on how bad the skits are.
Pablo Schreiber is undone by his own blandness and the weak writing that forces him to deliver expository, unfunny speeches on the miseries of life in the military: “I cannot afford this shit right now, I’m dealin’ with two underwater mortgages and child support— I’ve been livin’ off credit cards since flight school, flyin’ $65-million fighter jets for minimum fuckin’ wage!”
But perhaps the bigger problem with the show is we’re no longer afraid of nuclear warfare. Global warming now looks like the smart-money bet on humanity’s short road to ruin. Maybe we need a black comedy about that instead.
Or maybe this show in future episodes turns sharp, funny and genuinely angry about an imminent doomsday. To accomplish that, it would have to do a 180 away from slack, unfunny and mildly annoyed about the end of the world as we know it.
Eileen Jones is a film critic at Jacobin and author of the book Filmsuck, USA. She teaches at the University of California, Berkeley.