The Brink: Is America Ready for HBO’s New Political Satire?

The Brink
Merie W. Wallace/HBO
The Brink

We’re going rogue,” whispers U.S. Secretary of State Walter Larson (Tim Robbins) to his seen-it-all deputy Kendra (Maribeth Monroe) in the first episode of the new HBO satirical comedy The Brink. Larson, a hard-drinking, woman-loving, wise-ass Vietnam veteran, is the only heavy in the White House Situation Room with an actual plan to avert Armageddon after a war-hungry general takes control of Pakistan in a coup.

Merie W. Wallace/HBO

The United States is set to bomb Pakistan’s nuclear warhead sites. To stop red-button mania, Larson will, among other things, lie to wishy-washy POTUS Julian Navarro (Esai Morales), hop an airplane to New Delhi, and delay his critical urology surgery—with painfully hilarious results. But first he must recover from his hangover after an all-night bender with a call girl and then seduce a sexy translator of Urdu.

Obviously, Walter Larson is no Jack Bauer. And that’s a good thing. The character and story felt so fresh to Academy Award winner Robbins that it lured him to the small screen for his first series-regular gig. “In the past five years, there have been a few offers for me to do television. Some for a lot of money. But I wasn’t crazy about the scripts,” he says. “I read this and immediately was on board. It’s intelligent, ballsy, funny. The writers are going for it, doing real satire, which is rare. We need something like this. People are scared, and that way of thought has been kind of unassailable since the turn of the century.”

That mind-set is the culture of fear that still exists almost 14 years after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, a paranoid climate that spawned shows like 24 and Homeland. So, are TV viewers ready for a comedy that examines the darkest consequences of the seemingly endless U.S. involvement in global hot spots? Yes, says executive producer Jerry Weintraub, who’s been producing groundbreaking projects like Nashville and Diner since the ’70s. (His expansive producing credits also include the blockbuster Ocean’s Eleven movies and the Emmy-winning Behind the Candelabra.)

The Brink works for the same reason Dr. Strangelove and M*A*S*H worked,” Weintraub says. “War is ridiculous. Who needs war? Nobody. Our government is just as stupid as every other government. So why not make fun of it all?”

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No topic is off-limits for ridicule, including waterboarding and executions. Luckily, The Brink has a secret weapon for trading such material for laughs: Golden Globe nominee Jack Black. The comedian plays Alex Talbot, a cocky low-level foreign-service drone and CIA reject who procures hookers and drugs for Larson when he’s in Pakistan.

But we soon learn there’s more to Talbot than pimping and pot smoking. “He has depth,” Weintraub says. To wit: The Ivy League grad is in the foreign service because he didn’t want to end up milking the poor and middle class as a Wall Street banker.

An ever-deepening story was one reason Weintraub took just 10 minutes to decide to buy the script, cocreated and cowritten by brothers Roberto and Kim Benabib. The former was a writer on Weeds, which shares a similar theme with The Brink: Regular people backed into a corner by an elite-favoring system learn to bend the rules to survive—and then get punished for it.

The most down-to-earth of the characters is Zeke “Z-Pak” Tilson (Pablo Schreiber), an ace fighter pilot stationed on an aircraft carrier in the Red Sea who supplements his measly military salary by dealing drugs—which are also the only thing keeping the underpaid and overworked crew awake. When he and his copilot (Eric Ladin) make a critical error on a flight mission, they accidentally escalate the conflict.

Clearly, Larson has his work cut out for him, even before you throw in a U.S. ambassador to Pakistan (John Larroquette) who is elated to see biblical harbingers of the Second Coming in current events and turns to prayer as a strategic tool. Add an ultra-hawkish United States Secretary of Defense (Geoff Pierson), and peace seems almost impossible.

Although The Brink often pokes fun at U.S. foreign policy, Robbins insists the show is anti-stupidity, not anti-American. “I find satire is an essential part of living in a free society,” he says. “You have to ask difficult questions that find the humor in hubris. A society that can receive satire and appreciate it, and not lock up the people who make it, is a healthy society. The Brink would not be possible in certain countries.”

Most of all, the show is right for right now, insists Weintraub: “It’s new. It’s topical. It’s on top of things. There’s fear in it. There’s joy in it.” There’s also something of a call to action. Each episode closes with a rousing counterculture anthem from the Vietnam War era. As songs like “Fortunate Son” by Creedence Clearwater Revival or John Lennon’s “Instant Karma” blast over the credits, how can viewers not be inspired to tell it (or tweet it) to the Man? Maybe this generation’s antiwar revolution will be televised.

The Brink, Premieres Sunday, June 21, 10/9c, HBO