What would happen if you locked Veep, Silicon Valley, and Dr. Strangelove in the same closet? For one brief summer in 2015 HBO’s viewers found out: a satirical stew of the petty grievances, naked ambition, and snappy retorts that conspire to avert – or ensure – global nuclear annihilation. It was called The Brink, and its lone season was an uproarious (if occasionally terrifying) send-up of modern nuclear diplomacy.
Created by Roberto Benabib (formerly of Weeds) and his brother Kim, The Brink was conceived as a dark comedy that would showcase the horse trading that tweaks the Doomsday Clock’s minute hand. However, in spite of razor-sharp writing, startling plot twists, an all-star cast, and a production team that included Jay Roach and Aasif Mandvi, the series didn’t survive beyond its first season.
The Brink opens with a coup in Pakistan. When the unhinged General Zaman (Iqbal Theba) seizes control of the government and starts ranting about hormone-laced water and nuclear strikes, neighboring states and the US scramble to protect their own interests. As the situation develops, though, it becomes clear that the show’s central conflict is not between specific nations, but between the sort of people who literally salivate over nuclear warheads and the sort who would prefer not to spend the rest of their lives LARPing Fallout in a post-nuclear hellscape. So when President Navarro (Esai Morales) probes his cabinet for a response to the coup, Secretary of State Walter Larson (Tim Robbins) is dismayed to find himself the only person in the Situation Room opposed to Operation Carpet-Bomb All The Things. While the Secretary of Defense urges the president to launch a strike, Larson and his aide frantically work to organize a bloodless counter-coup.
Half the world away, two Naval officers stationed on an aircraft carrier somewhere on the Arabian Sea trade banter, pipe dreams, and banned substances between assignments. Zeke “Z-Pak” Tilson (Pablo Schreiber) is a crack pilot with a thriving pharmaceutical side gig that keeps his fellow pilots awake and his child support payments on time. He and his navigator, Glenn “Jammer” Taylor, constitute the best F-18 crew on their ship – when they’re sober. Even when they’re not, they’re still pretty damn good at their jobs, so it’s anybody’s guess how they’ll pull off the mission that may or may not kick off the end of the world.
With the president’s advisors pushing to escalate and the US Ambassador to Pakistan (John Larroquette) nursing wild-eyed fantasies of being God’s hand in the Apocalypse, the only diplomat available to help Walter defuse the situation in Pakistan is Alex Talbot (Jack Black), a low-level staffer whose qualifying diplomatic achievement was to maroon himself and his driver, Rafiq Massoud (Aasif Mandvi), outside the Embassy on an ill-timed weed run. While Alex tries to pass himself off as a deep cover CIA operative, Rafiq becomes his reluctant guide and translator, shepherding him through the schemes intended to overthrow Zaman.
An international nuclear crisis as a hot potato tossed between a womanizing Secretary of State, an Ivy League pothead, and a drug-dealing fighter pilot is exactly as wild a ride as you’d imagine, and the result is a show you can find yourself binging over a weekend because that was a terrific gag and you just have to know what happens next. It’s a testament to The Brink’s writers and cast that the byzantine network of grievances and competing ambitions responsible for our continued survival is both accessible and hilarious. Unlike Silicon Valley or Veep (which, don’t get me wrong, are great shows), The Brink’s characters are mostly likeable, and its plot twists are grounded by their ongoing (if occasionally incompetent) efforts to do the right thing and leavened by an endless supply of wicked one-liners.
Much like The Unusuals, The Brink’s real genius lay in pairing off cast members and mining their chemistry to great comedic – and occasionally dramatic – effect. Kendra Peterson (Maribeth Monroe), the aide unfazed by Walter’s sexual or political exploits, crackles with exasperated competence as she runs point for him on everything from calls to world leaders to emergency surgery. Rafiq swings between calling Alex on his self-aggrandizing bullshit and rescuing him from his own overconfidence, all the while wondering how someone so obviously unfit for the Foreign Service has managed to survive this long in Islamabad. My favorite duo by far, though, is Z-Pak and Jammer, whose class-clowning rapport would have carried a lesser show, and whose end-of-series fate seems a spectacularly inadequate conclusion to their mission.
Dark, funny, and unpredictable, The Brink never escaped comparisons to Dr. Strangelove, which may have contributed to its lukewarm critical reception. In spite of its many nods to the film (which you’d be hard pressed not to make in any comedy about imminent nuclear annihilation), The Brink was at once more modern and less absurd. No one involved ever seemed to harbor the delusion that a half-hour cable comedy would be the next Strangelove. It reads more as a sigh of plus ça change, the gallows humor of those who know the bombs are bound to fly sooner or later, and that we may as well enjoy the joke while it lasts.
HOW TO WATCH: Season 1 is streaming on HBO Now and Amazon shows a DVD available for pre-order but does not specify a release date.
MUST WATCH: “Sticky Wicket,” written by Aasif Mandvi, includes one of the biggest shocks of the series and explores how politicians’ deals play with (and play out for) ordinary people.
FAVORITE LINES: “Yes, I promise that, unlike your grandchildren, I WILL call you.”
“Or suicidal. I always get those two things confused.”
“You’re an embarrassment to the flag, the Navy, and the apes you evolved from!”
“This outfit belonged to my father. Please try not to get blood all over it.”
“Hold my catheter. Gas up the jet. We’re breaking out!”
“I’m glad the slow destruction of my country has changed the way you see yourself.”
“I can’t tell what’s real anymore, man. These British people are too good at acting.”
“No, f*** Reagan!”
“No, YOU f*** Reagan!”
“I thought you said we were cut from the same cloth.”
“That was not a compliment!”
PAIR WITH: A lovely glass of Scotch you will never actually sit down long enough to drink. Or, if you’re in a friendly jurisdiction, some very strong weed, smoked at precisely the wrong moment to be high.
WATCH FOR: Everyone. In addition to Pablo Schreiber, who plays Mad Sweeney on American Gods and Pornstache on Orange Is the New Black, The Brink features appearances by Michelle Gomez (Missy in Dr. Who), Jaimie Alexander (Lady Sif in the MCU), Bernard White (Denpok on Silicon Valley), and Carla Gugino (Lucille in Sin City).
ODDS & ENDS: Zaman’s rants about sex hormones in the water (he stops just short of announcing the importance of protecting his purity of essence) and President Navarro’s call with Israel both echo similar scenes in Strangelove.
Kendra is so fearless, fishing Walter’s phone out of a urinal is not even the most hardcore thing she does.
The Joint Chiefs eat Chinese takeout in the Situation Room on fancy china with gold-plated forks, and it’s hard not to wonder whether all White House meals are this preposterously fancy.
AFTERWARDS: If you’re feeling pessimistic, Idiocracy; if optimistic, Dr. Strangelove.