Owing an absurdist debt to “Dr. Strangelove,” “The Brink” tries to excavate comedy, or at least fairly scabrous satire, from the threat of nukes in the hands of a lunatic, and a budding international crisis. In that regard, it’s more daring conceptually than it is in practice, with a jokey, anything-for-a-gag tone and a fondness for rat-a-tat banter and insults that plays like “Veep’s” addled cousin, offering its own look at petty squabbling within the White House and government. In terms of frittering around the edges of being worthwhile but not getting there, “The Brink” is aptly titled.
Pairing the show with “Veep” probably would have been too much of a similar thing, but it certainly feels like a logical companion. Essentially cutting among three separate but related plots, the series stars Jack Black as Alex Talbot, a low-level embassy bureaucrat in Pakistan who suddenly finds himself in the thick of things when the government falls, giving a crazed general (“Glee’s” Iqbal Theba) access to the country’s nuclear arsenal. “That’s no gay pride parade,” Alex quips, as protestors storm around them.
The chaos triggers a major crisis for the Secretary of State, Walter Larson (Tim Robbins), a skirt-chasing, boozing mess who also happens to be the voice of reason within the administration. Indeed, when not loopy as he tries to pass a kidney stone, he’s hurling profane insults at the war-happy Secretary of Defense (Geoff Pierson), who is eager to launch air strikes, and vying for the ear of the President (Esai Morales).
Finally, there’s Navy fighter-pilot Zeke Tilson (Pablo Schreiber), who is experiencing his own distracting personal issues, which is really bad timing, inasmuch as he and his wing man (Eric Ladin) are asked to fly a mission over Pakistan.
Directed by Jay Roach (who has helmed the HBO politically themed movies “Game Change” and “Recount”) and written by Roberto and Kim Benabib, almost everything about “The Brink” seems to be trying too hard. And while there are some funny, or at least politically astute, lines — like the suggestion far-right Christians vigorously support Israel because they want to “keep the lights on” until Jesus returns — the show operates at a tone of constant hysteria, which, as justified as that may be, begins to feel exhausting. In fact, after five episodes, this might be one of those shows where binge-watching yields diminishing returns.
Despite that, the series boasts some very good casting, from “The Daily Show’s” Aasif Mandvi as an embassy driver — like Alex, reluctantly dragged into the cloak-and-dagger stuff — to Carla Gugino as Larson’s wife, a D.C. power marriage that’s for show only. Black’s mugging and Robbins’ wild man, however, largely offset those assets, injecting a heavy dose of screwball comedy into a series that would benefit from letting the absurdity of the situations do more of the heavy lifting. There are also some too-familiar elements, like Larson’s much-abused aide (Maribeth Monroe), whose above-and-beyond duties are just beginning when she has to fish his cellphone out of a urinal.
Granted, it does take some guts to produce a comedy where World War III is a distinct possibility, and the provocative premise — operating not so far outside the realm of possibility — won’t do anything to hurt HBO’s street cred in the Washington bastions the network cultivates. That said, the channel owes its image to putting on smart shows, and while “The Brink” delivers moments that fit that description, too much of the time, it’s best defined just as being loud.