Armando Iannucci has left the building.
Since mid-April, HBO has housed probably the best 90-minute comedy block on television, with the tech world satire of “Silicon Valley” transitioning into the political satire of “Veep” and closing with the sharp-eyed comedic advocacy of “Last Week Tonight with Jon Oliver.” With those three comedies and even a lackluster-by-its-high-standards “Game of Thrones” season, HBO has had the Sunday quality TV crown on lockdown for months.
But change is in the air.
Iannucci, TV's keenest tweaker of governmental process, announced earlier this spring that he was stepping back from his showrunning responsibilities on “Veep.” I've resisted panic, because the “Veep” creative bench is deep and I believe a solid foundation is in place to maintain much of the momentum beyond last Sunday's season finale.
Sadly, the momentum of HBO's Sunday is in free fall and nowhere is that more evident than in the 10:30 comedy slot, in which the razor-sharp writing and flawlessly calibrated ensemble of “Veep” have been replaced by the flaccid attempted wit and jarringly uneven ensemble of “The Brink.” It's a comparison that does “The Brink” no favors, but that HBO pretty much demanded with its scheduling decision.
Where once aired a nimble political satire now resides a leaden disappointment.
[Note that this review is based on the first five episodes of “The Brink.”]
Credit “The Brink” creators Roberto and Kim Benabib at least for structural ambition, even if that structural ambition was borrowed so totally from “Dr. Strangelove” as to require a debt of some sort.
“The Brink” chronicles an unfolding geopolitical crisis on three fronts.
On the political side, horndog Secretary of State Walter Larson (Tim Robbins) is facing increased political irrelevancy as President Julian Navarro (Esai Morales) is leaning more and more on his Secretary of Defense (Geoff Pierson).
This becomes relevant because in Pakistan, low-level foreign service officer Alex Talbot (Jack Black) is about to become embroiled in potential upheaval with nuclear consequences in Pakistan, aided mostly by his equally low-level Embassy cohort Rafiq (Aasif Mandvi).
And then finally you have a pair of naval aviators (Pablo Schreiber and Eric Ladin), whose drug-fueled misadventures may accidentally end the world.
Trying to pinpoint what, exactly, the Benabibs are satirizing here is an exercise in futility. It's a scattershot “Look! Everybody is crazy!” approach to comedy that pretty much throws character out the window in favor of undercutting every scene with shrill and jarring details, particularly when it comes to leading men Robbins and Black, who are both producers here and are presumably the reason “The Brink” made it onto HBO at all.
Black's Talbot is, in the pilot, a Dartmouth grad who finds himself in a pointless post in Pakistan when what he really wants to do is environmental affairs. There's an altruism to the character which exists only in the writing, but not in Jack Black's self-congratulatory and boorish performance, but by the second episode even that angle in the writing doesn't exist anymore. By the second episode, Jack Black has bulldozed whatever character once existed and replaced it with a guy who finds endless humor in mocking or undermining customs in his temporary home — that an Urdu word sounds a lot like “Shakira” amuses him endlessly, but somehow didn't amuse me any more in its second, third or fifth repetition — and is motivated by either forcing himself on his co-worker's sister or the possibility of a new job in Paris, a job that has nothing to do with his protestations in the pilot that he yearns to make a difference. This is Black at his most grating, a reminder of how frequently when he isn't feeling the material, his instinct is just to shout, raise an eyebrow and beg for laughter.
Certainly any hope that giving Mandvi a platform as writer and producer on “The Brink” might open the door for an iota of specificity is shattered very quickly. Mandvi's place here is to express banal exasperation at his Ugly American partner, but that fails to offer any dimensionalizing to the show's depiction of Pakistan, which is so generic they might as well have eschewed the use of an actual country's name.
Also struggling to find any consistency with a half-baked character is Robbins, who showed his dexterity with political satire as writer-director-star of “Bob Roberts” and almost certainly could have done better here if left entirely to his own devices. The script can't decide when Secretary Larson is supposed to be an oversexed, hygiene-deficient buffoon and when he's supposed to be a savvy political operator and Robbins' decision to only play the role at either extreme makes it hard to buy at either end.
Apologies for the pun, but at least because there's little effort to ground the two pilots in any way, their loopy misadventures worked better for me.
Many of the erratic and seemingly random acting choices fall on inconsistent written characterizations, many fall on stars too big to be wholly steered and many have to be placed on the “Brink” directors, which is strange because from Jay Roach to Michael Lehmann to Robbins himself, the show recruited helmers who actually know their way around a tonal tightrope. So again I return to a show that grafts farce on drama without bothering to hone in on a target.
“The Brink” attempts the “Dr. Strangelove” trick of having wackiness ensuing against a semi-serious backdrop — the stuff with Black in Pakistan is basically “Homeland” Season 4 — but the tension of a gestating World War III never comes close to developing amidst a stream of cheap scatological punchlines and dick jokes told by actors desperately mugging for effect. I'd like to say that the Benabibs' penile amusement was in service of a subtext connecting impotence to masculine posturing to war-mongering. It's not. I'd like to say that Black's character is being derided for his ignorance and that his character was positioned as a commentary on ineffective American diplomacy and cartoonish empire-building. It's not. I'd like to say that the two flyboys are playing off American military policies that sometimes leave our best and brightest ill-equipped both for combat and for a return to civilian life. They're not.
Kidney stones cause pain in embarrassing places!
Foreign languages sound hilarious if you're an American!
The only thing funnier than a violent sexual fetish is repeated giggle-inducing sight gags with an absurdly large penis!
Somehow, these things just aren't as roaringly funny as “The Brink” thinks they are, but it's at least partially HBO and Armando Iannucci's fault for making us believe we deserve better.
“The Brink” premieres on Sunday, June 21 at 10:30 on HBO.