A military coup devastates Pakistan, the world hurtles towards World War III, and the Prime Minister of Israel rocks a speedo. Welcome to The Brink.
In HBO’s new dark comedy, which stars Tim Robbins, Jack Black and Pablo Schreiber, desert warfare, high stakes diplomacy and banana hammocks all have their place. The show was created by brothers Roberto and Kim Benabib (Roberto Benabib wrote and executive produced Weeds). The Brink‘s Executive Producer Jay Roach (Meet the Parents, Austin Powers) directed the pilot. Roach and the Benabibs—along with cast members Eric Ladin and Maribeth Monroe—were present for Tuesday’s Film Independent at LACMA screening of episodes five and six of the show’s first season.
During the introduction and conversation, both Roach and Mitchell took a moment to recognize a major player in bringing the team together—the “late, great Jerry Weintraub”, who passed away on July 6. The Brink is one of the final projects he brought to life. Roach recounted how he was meeting with Weintraub, frustrated in his search for something exciting, when Weintraub rushed out of his office to retrieve the script from another room. He came back; Roach read it. “I said okay right away.”
It’s easy to see why Roach was enthralled. The series revolves around three Americans stuck in a crisis in the Middle East: Lecherous manchild/Secretary of State Walter Larson (Robbins), love-struck stoner/Foreign Service Officer Alex Talbot (Black), and American Naval Aviator/drug dealer Zeke “Z-Pak” Tilson (Schreiber). Roach, with his experience directing both comedies like Austin Powers and political dramas like HBO’s Game Change, was uniquely qualified to bring The Brink to the screen.
“It’s not that you can’t find directors that can do one of these things,” said Kim Benabib, “But finding a director who can do all these things simultaneously is what led us to [Jay].” Who else but Roach could execute a scene in which the Secretary of State conducts crucial negotiations with the Israeli Prime Minister—who lounges by the pool in his man-thong.
Supporting the leads are their equally manic partners: Maribeth Monroe as Larson’s assistant, Kendra Peterson; Aasif Mandvi as Talbot’s Pakistani co-worker, Rafiq Massoud; and Eric Ladin as Tilson’s fellow officer, Glenn “Jammer” Taylor. “The supporting characters—don’t tell Tim or Jack,” said Roach cautiously, “They end up stealing so many scenes.” Scenes like Mandvi stopping Talbot from hitting on his sister, or Peterson prying a catheter free from the Larson’s rectum, or Taylor running desperately through a desert minefield. Film Independent Curator Elvis Mitchell said watching the minefield scene was “like watching a five-year-old run to his dad.” Ladin offered some background: “If you’ve ever spent time in Santa Clarita at high noon, the idea of going to lunch was much like a 5-year-old running to his father.” Monroe then took a moment to thank the Benabibs “for putting [her] in air-conditioned, spacious areas.”
Shreiber and Ladin were not so lucky. At the beginning of episode five, the two are stranded in the desert with little-to-no resources when they encounter two enemy soldiers. After an attempt to speak the native language backfires, they scuffle with their new foes and somehow manage to win, victoriously chanting after, “USA! USA!”
“TV doesn’t use much physical comedy.” Kim Benabib noted. “So many comedies revolve around interpersonal relationships, and this comedy deals with a macro look at the world, so it moves. These characters are in motion. They’re not just bantering over a desk. They’re running through an airport in Jerusalem or Geneva.” But the writers also made sure to let the political reality of the situation have its moment. When the Secretary of State threatens the Israeli Foreign Minister by touting his influence over the Jewish-American congressmen, she scoffs at his threat, and reminds him it’s the neo-conservatives who actually back Israel. “They just need us to keep the lights on for their f*****g messiah.”
The series constantly leaves the audience hanging, jumping between three hurtling storylines, with small cliffhangers leading to bigger cliffhangers that keep the audience wanting more. It’s not the easiest juggling act, but for the Benabibs, it’s necessary. “Is it more highly binge-able than a typical show or not?” is a question Roberto Benabib asked himself often. Kim Benabib seconded, “There’s so much good stuff out there. You have to almost demand, story-wise, that someone come back to find out what happened.”
But toward the end of the of the conversation, Kim Benabib made sure to say that the show is about more than just political hijinks and binge-ability. “There is a core of altruism… These [characters] are people that have decided to give their lives up to others. They’re not on Wall Street. They’re not here in LA–” But at that moment Mitchell, who couldn’t resist pointing out that The Brink shoots in Los Angeles, interjected: “They’re here now!”
Daniel Larios / Film Independent Blogger