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Television review

HBO’s ‘The Brink’: Spoofing fear itself

Geoff Pierson and Tim Robbins star in “The Brink.”
Geoff Pierson and Tim Robbins star in “The Brink.”Photos by Merie W. Wallace/HBO/HBO

Since 9/11, TV dramas have taken on terrorism and the new normal of geopolitical discord in super-serious tones. First, “24” gave us a visceral, black-and-white American response to the fall of the Twin Towers, with a grunting, Patriot Act-enhanced action hero bent on saving us from another attack at all costs. A decade later, “Homeland” reflected deeper psychological uncertainties, with flawed characters haunted by questions of whom to trust. Surrounding those two landmark shows have been many lesser-known series and episodes that have looked at survivor trauma or mined fear of extremism and sleeper cells.

“The Brink” represents another step in the ever-evolving reaction to post-9/11 complexities: punchy laughter. The HBO show, which premieres Sunday at 10:30 p.m., is a full-on farce about the threat of World War III and the diplomats trying to prevent it. It’s anything but serious, and it stands as both a satire of contemporary international politics as well as a spoof of the sober post-9/11 shows that preceded it, not least of all “24” and “Homeland.” In “The Brink,” there is no Jack Bauer or Carrie Mathison figure, just a bunch of losers and freaks, including one played by our national court jester, Jack Black. To mark the show’s liberation from political correctness, earnestness, and sacred cows, there are water-boarding jokes aplenty.


If you hate farce, and if your tolerance for hit-or-miss humor, some of which involves poop and penises, is low, then “The Brink” will probably strike you as woefully immature. This is a ruthless and often crude goof on the people who run this and other countries, the people who represent us overseas, and the people who fight for us in-country. When we meet Tim Robbins, who plays Secretary of State Walter Larson, he is in the middle of a sexual encounter involving a death fetish, and he spends the better part of the first five episodes reacting — with some slapstick — to intense urinary pain from a kidney stone. “Veep” is also filled with narcissists and incompetents, but they’re almost models of functionality compared with the “Brink” folks.

I found the “Dr. Strangelove”-like series, which was created by brothers Roberto and Kim Benabib, consistently entertaining, if not hysterical, and plotted with care, so that three distinct story lines dovetail nicely. Larson is busy in the War Room with the indecisive president (Esai Morales) and his hawkish secretary of defense (Geoff Pierson), trying to prevent Armageddon after a rabid and paranoid general takes control of Pakistan. Black’s Alex Talbot is a fumbling, low-level bureaucrat at the State Department in Islamabad who gets pulled into the coup crisis. And Zeke Tilson (Pablo Schreiber, Pornstache on “Orange Is the New Black”) is a fighter pilot and part-time drug dealer on an aircraft carrier in the Red Sea who accidentally escalates the conflict. The show ties these strands together artfully, and I have faith that the season — which is 10 episodes long — will wrap up well.


Robbins holds the show together with his go-for-broke performance. His Larson is forever tailed by a dutiful assistant (Maribeth Monroe) who, like Gary on “Veep” or Radar O’Reilly on M*A*S*H,” is always in twisted synch with her boss. Their codependent rapport, which has her following him into the men’s room to conduct business, is a kick.

Wisely, Robbins and the Benabibs make the secretary of state, who is a Vietnam veteran, into a bit of a hero, too, despite his adultery, his lies, and his flagrant self-interest. Everyone in “The Brink” is ridiculous, but there are degrees, so that beside the leader of the coup in Pakistan, who spouts nonsense about Israel’s plot to render his country infertile, the peace-seeking Larson is a winner. Likewise Black’s Talbot, a lazy stoner, reveals some of his better instincts as the show unfolds.


The writers understand that viewers need to find a positive pole to balance the negative on “The Brink,” as well as some relatable characters, in order to form a connection. Interestingly, each episode of this contemporary show ends with a countercultural anthem from the Vietnam War era, including Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” and John Lennon’s “Instant Karma.” Those rousing and sincere songs are reminders of international mistakes of the past, as well as signals of the anger and frustration that drive so much of this show’s fierce mockery.


Starring: Tim Robbins, Jack Black, Carla Gugino, Aasif Mandvi, Pablo Schreiber, Esai Morales, Geoff Pierson, Eric Laden, Michelle Gomez, Rob Brydon, Maribeth Monroe


Time: Sunday, 10:30 p.m.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.