If you’re going to satirize America’s foreign policy in the Middle East and the geopolitics of our uneasy relationship with Pakistan, you better be willing to go for the jugular and delve into some macabre, black comedy that will utilize the satirical form to expose American and Western audiences to some harsh and unpleasant truths about what our government does in the name of fighting terrorism. “Terror Tuesday” meetings, creative ways to lower the official civilian death toll, the working environment of the drone pilots who have arguably become the most vital “foot soldiers” in U.S. counter-terror operations — that’s the kind of material that desperately needs biting, vicious satire of the Jonathan Swift variety.


Instead, with HBO’s new comedy, The Brink, we get the Judd Apatow/Seth Rogen treatment — crass sex jokes, lame cultural identity humor and a plethora of alcohol-and-drug induced shenanigans. That works well enough in an Apatow film, where the jokes and gags usually have imagination and wit and actually land more often than not, sometimes hilariously, and the comedy aims for farce or spoof rather than satire — one reason why The Interview is by far my least favorite film by that crew. However, it doesn’t work in a show that aims to send up America’s War on Terror, and the jokes here are obvious and fall flat. One character, amid a massive, violent uprising of Pakistanis, exclaims that he and his companion should go to his parents’ house, which is nearby. The hilarious response? “Don’t you think it’s a little early to be inviting me to your parents’ house? I mean, we just started dating.” Another gem: “Don’t underestimate the asshole. It’s the most powerful muscle in your body. It will crush you.” Ugh.

The Brink has three main plot threads featuring main characters all affiliated with the U.S. government and its foreign policy operations in some capacity. We are introduced to Walter Larson (Tim Robbins), the philandering, hard-drinking U.S. Secretary of State who we first see tied up to a bed having sex with a Cambodian prostitute… because Asian sex workers are funny? There’s Alex Talbot (Jack Black), a low-level diplomat in Pakistan who claims to want to make a difference but seems more interested in advancing his own career and pursuing foreign women and weed and cracking unfunny jokes about Pakistani culture, and his assistant, Rafiq Massoud (Aasif Mandvi), a native Pakistani who lives in a constant state of exasperation at the incompetence and ignorance of his boss. Finally, to bring us out of the realm of government bureaucracy, we have Zeke Tilson (Pablo Schreiber, who played “Pornstache” Mendez in Orange is the New Black), a naval pilot who takes a cocktail of drugs to stay awake or steady his nerves and sells whatever is left over to his fellow servicemen, including at least one officer, to compensate for his menial wage and crippling debt. None of these characters are very compelling or funny, though Zeke is definitely the least boring of the three. The show’s cast features both dramatic and comedic heavyweights, but the script leaves their talent little to work with.

The show opts for an apocalyptic, World War III scenario as its central plot, as Pakistan erupts with a military coup and the country is taken over by a man we learn has been diagnosed with mental illnesses and personality disorders, leaving the country’s nuclear arsenal vulnerable to terrorists. This plot has earned the show many unfavorable comparisons to Dr. Strangelove, the classic Stanley Kubrick satire of Cold War politics and paranoia embroiling a coterie of incompetent or outright insane world leaders and soldiers in a nuclear doomsday scenario, and it’s easy to see why, on the most superficial level, this show reminds one of that wonderful black comedy from the 1960’s. There’s even a reference to General Ripper’s obsession with the Soviet contamination of Americans’ bodily fluids, as the new Pakistani dictator claims that U.S. drones are a Zionist plot to inhibit Pakistanis’ ability to reproduce, though in this context, it feels less like a homage and more like a cheap knockoff.

To the show’s credit, it makes a couple somewhat astute political observations; one scene reflects the recent tensions between America and Israel over Iran, as the Israeli Prime Minister tries to bully the American president into launching military action against Pakistan by threatening to do the same unilaterally. Another scene, during which Rafiq’s family accuses Alex of being a CIA agent, reflect the amount of distrust and paranoia Pakistanis have when it comes to the CIA, an entity that has become almost universally despised in the country after the Raymond Davis incident and the revelation that the CIA recruited a Pakistani doctor in a fake vaccination campaign in order to locate Osama bin Laden. Also, income inequality is commented on through Zeke, who is a member of our armed forces, whom we claim to revere and honor, but is paid so little that he has to sell drugs to make ends meet. However, these moments of political clarity seem to be more the exception than the rule for The Brink, and I doubt such moments will ever go beyond the surface level of this episode, and it’s not enough to make me forget all the bad jokes and missed opportunities. Maybe it will come into its own later in the season, but judging by the premiere, that’s probably about as likely as Donald Trump becoming the President of the United States.


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