Television has embraced geopolitical subjects in recent years via popular shows such as “Homeland” and “The Americans.”
Laughs, however, are as common in this realm as the sight of Carrie Mathison sipping a beach-side margarita.
That will change on Sunday, when HBO’s half-hour comedy “The Brink” premieres. Created by “Weeds” veteran Roberto Benabib with his novelist brother Kim, the single-camera show aims to mine the humor in such unfrivolous topics as Pakistani regime destabilization, U.S. government war rooms and deadly accurate Navy pilots.
“We grew up with shows like ‘M*A*S*H’ that were able to look at world events through comedy,” Roberto Benabib said. “But then TV turned into a Seinfeldian place, where comedy was about interpersonal relationships. And we looked at each other and said, ‘Why does it have to be that way? Why is the only satire you see in mock newscasts like Jon Stewart?’”
Starring Jack Black as a State Department flunky in Pakistan and Tim Robbins as a loose-cannon secretary of state, the 10-episode season of “The Brink” explores what happens when a maniacal Pakistani leader threatens a U.S. ally, prompting a foreign-policy crisis.
The series cuts among three strands. Robbins’ Walter Larson guides strategy at the highest levels of the U.S. government and loves drinking and casual sex.
Pablo Schreiber leads a subplot as a disgruntled fighter pilot named Zeke Tilson, who’s sent on a mission to, ahem, remedy the crisis.
And Black’s Alex Talbot is a pot-smoking slacker foreign service officer at the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad who, Austin Powers style, stumbles onto damning information when he’s stranded at the house of his Pakistani driver (Aasif Mandvi).
“Alex is clearly hoping to achieve some super-sexy level of government employment. He wants to be 007, have the best sex possible and smoke the best weed,” Black said, summing up his role. “Instead he gets embroiled in some seriously dangerous …”
The tone of “The Brink” is pretty much set from the beginning of the first episode (directed by Jay Roach, who made “Meet the Parents”), when Robbins’ character is captured in flagrante delicto with a young woman while a global crisis is brewing. The image lends the proceedings a screwball feel, even as the strategic questions are highly serious.
“It’s probably a pretty accurate portrayal of the way things really work,” said Robbins, who has long been active in political causes. “At the end of the day, even though people in positions of power put on a diplomatic or polite face, I have to believe that when all the cameras are off there’s a different kind of behavior.”
The series, he said, would pull off that veil.
“Who are these people that we revile and we revere, who are these leaders when they can really speak their minds? It’s such a rich canvas to explore,” he said.
The Benabibs were not thinking about writing a geopolitical comedy when they happened upon a history of “Dr. Strangelove” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Stanley Kubrick exhibit several years ago. The satire of the U.S. and Soviet Union’s bumble to nuclear war managed notes both serious and the absurd, they realized. An idea began to take root.
Soon the Benabibs were reading books on internal State Department politics and consulting everyone from Navy experts to advisers on Urdu as they crafted a script. They brought it to veteran movie producer Jerry Weintraub, who helped them put the project together and sell the show.
Weintraub too has long been active in political circles, and as one of “The Brink’s” executive producers drew off his political contacts to shape a program he calls “very different from anything on television.”
Indeed, the contrast between the crop of foreign-policy thrillers and “The Brink” is underscored by the Islamabad setting. Fans of “Homeland” will be struck by the similar-looking embassy exteriors, in a way that only calls attention to the shows’ tonal differences. (The writers’ aim is to rotate to a new global hot spot each season, with the principal cast returning.)
Part of why satire has also been so rarely attempted, of course, is that it must toe a thin line. Too much mockery can seem insensitive, especially in an era when social media is quick to mobilize over perceived offenses and certain forms of satire can have disastrous consequences, as the Charlie Hebdo attacks demonstrated this year. Too little mockery, though, and a show becomes toothless.
“The Brink” also poses a challenge because it must achieve its satiric ends without taking an overt political view, which most broadly aiming comedies shy away from.
“We weren’t afraid to go anywhere with it,” Weintraub said when asked how the production kept these demands in balance. But, he added, “We’re not making a political statement, and we’re not taking a side. Our government has as many problems as the Pakistani government.”
That notion of Washington ineptitude will be familiar to viewers of another HBO comedy: “Veep,” with which some of “The Brink’s” D.C-set scenes share similarities.
The Benabibs admit some overlap but make a distinction.
“Maybe the fundamental difference with ‘Veep,’” Kim Benabib said, “is that that’s a comedy of how little is at stake, and ours is a comedy of how much is at stake.”
WHERE TO WATCH
“The Brink” premieres at 9:30 p.m. Sunday on HBO.