Review: Jack Black and Tim Robbins Can’t Save The Brink

It’s certainly not coincidence that The Brink–HBO’s newest half-hour comedy (alongside Ballers)–aired the weekend after Veep‘s fourth season finale. In theory, the two political satires should go hand in hand, The Brink dealing in absurd foreign policy where Veep tackles the “war at home”. In action though, The Brink‘s premiere episode lacks Veep‘s charm and cohesion, even with veteran actors like Jack Black and Tim Robbins at its helm.

The Brink's war room.

The Brink‘s debut episode revolves around an escalating situation in Pakistan involving a militant group gaining control of the government in a coup d’etat. Caught up in the middle of this geopolitical shift is Alex Talbot (Jack Black)–a no-name Embassy worker–and his driver, Rafiq Massoud (The Daily Show‘s Aasif Mandvi). Soon the scope widens as we meet Tim Robbins’ Walter Larson, the United States Secretary of State, and Zeke “Z-Pak” Tilson (The Wire‘s Pablo Schreiber), a pill popping–and selling–naval pilot.

While The Brink moves quick on it’s feet, jumping from character to character as the military situation ramps up, it never imbues us with even a passing interest in more than half of the characters. Notably, most of the white males on the show feel pretty one-dimensional. Jack Black’s low-level embassy worker stumbles through the plot–albeit more put together than most other Jack Black characters–but we never get a sense of his true aims in life or the motivations for his actions. Most of all, we don’t care what happens to him, at least not yet. The Secretary of State is equally hard to latch on to, though he does have a stronger presence in the pilot, as seen by his over-the-top womanizing, non-stop drinking and his kinky play with a hired prostitute. But alas, these attributes don’t quite form a character that we have any interest in keeping up with week after week. Not to keep going back to the well, but Veep, on the other hand, does a terrific job of portraying some truly despicable characters while still coercing the audience into wanting to follow their foibles over the course of a season. Though they have defining character ticks, Alex Talbot and Walter Larson–and even Zeke Tilson–come off as milk-toast stereotypes with little to offer the discerning viewer. The majority of the women on the show also get short shrift, either playing the role of sexual object or potential mate for our boring white protagonists.

Tim Robbins points at himself, confused.

In contrast, Larson’s assistant–played by Workaholics’ Maribeth Monroe–proves to be much more interesting, conflicted by her boss’s bad decisions in his personal life and his (seemingly) good decisions in the “work place”. Even in her five to ten minute screen time, Monroe imbues the character with more dramatic gravitas than her white male counterparts. So too can be said of Aasif Mandvi’s Rafiq, who seemingly embodies the series writers’–brothers Roberto and Kim Benabib–personal outlook on the various government officials they’re lampooning. Rafiq–having taken a job with the U.S. embassy just to get by–is essentially an innocent bystander caught up in the idiotic decisions of his cohorts and the U.S. government. Not only that, but the series premiere finds him more effectual than Talbot in his ability to handle intense situations and to think about things logically. Rafiq is the audience, asking Talbot “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” at almost every turn. The introduction of a small Pakistani family also caught up in the conflict, further drives the storyline into rich territory, leaving the audience relating to the very people that classically elude us. Rafiq and this Pakistani family aren’t the frightening “other” of Ben Affleck’s Argo–a film dealing in Middle Eastern conflicts with much less finesse–but instead, reflect a much more realistic reaction to a geopolitical shift; one that we as an audience can relate to.

Outside of the writing, the directing of the episode–from Meet the Parents director, Jay Roach–could be to blame for some of the tonal issues. Roach brings a certain style of humor to the series which at times clashes with the overarching storyline. Alex Talbot’s reserved galavanting doesn’t quite mix with the relative intensity of the military takeover, and Jack Black–for all his skill–feels a little lost in the role, never sure if he should be playing things up or toning them down. While Tim Robbins dives head first into his own part–really luxuriating in Larson’s various vices–the character’s frequent waffling between 60-year-old frat boy, and the only reasonable voice in the President’s war room, understandably does a number on Robbins. For both roles, the direction doesn’t seem like it’s giving enough of a definitive take on who these characters are, and Black and Robbins are left out to dry in the process.

Jack Black holds his hands in the air like he just don't care.

Clearly, this first episode of The Brink wasn’t my cup of tea, but it’s not all doom and gloom. As I mentioned, there’s some nice character work happening on the sidelines here and The Brink certainly wouldn’t be the first show to come back from a rocky pilot episode, if it does in fact have that in it. Next week’s episode is also being directed by Robbins himself, a man who’s much more adept at political satire–see Bob Roberts–than Roach, at least for my money. If I’m completely honest with myself, even Veep was a little hard to get through at times in that first season for many of the same reasons, mainly that despicable characters who are hard to warm up to litter the landscape. Admittedly, I don’t have my hopes up, but The Brink still has some of the right pieces in place to prove itself a worthy addition to HBO’s growing comedy lineup, if it’ll just get out of its own way.

Matthew McCrary
Matthew McCrary
Pop culture writer at Monkeys Fighting Robots and Boom Howdy. Currently hosting the Toondiculous Podcast, where two grown men point out the logic flaws in children's programming. This sort of thing makes him feel like a big man, you see.

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