HBO comedy The Brink takes the mickey out of politicians

Jack Black (above, right) and Aasif Mandvi insist that, unlike many popular dramas about international politics, The Brink will take potshots at all the fictional governments portrayed, be they American, Pakistani, Indian or Israeli.
Jack Black (above, right) and Aasif Mandvi insist that, unlike many popular dramas about international politics, The Brink will take potshots at all the fictional governments portrayed, be they American, Pakistani, Indian or Israeli.PHOTO: HBO ASIA

Think those in charge of the world's security are super efficient? New HBO comedy series The Brink tells you otherwise

Watching political shows such as Homeland and The West Wing, you would think that politicians, diplomats and soldiers are all thoroughly competent and professional.

The new comedy series The Brink wants to shatter the illusion, depicting those responsible for the world's security as petty, sex-crazed, drug-addled or otherwise flawed.

And this satirical look may prove more insightful than serious dramas on the subject, say its stars Jack Black, Tim Robbins and Aasif Mandvi.

"Maybe governments aren't as organised as we all assume they are," Black tells Life! and other press in Los Angeles.

Inspired by Stanley Kubrick's classic film Dr Strangelove (1964), The Brink centres on a geopolitical crisis triggered by a coup in Pakistan, where a crazed general has taken over the government and is threatening to use its nuclear arsenal. It airs in Singapore on HBO (StarHub TV Channel 601).

In the show, when leaders in the United States, India and Israel react hawkishly, it looks like World War III could be unleashed unless a handful of men - a libidinous politician, a cowardly embassy official and a bungling fighter pilot - can stop it.

Robbins plays one of the unlikely heroes: sex-obsessed, drug-abusing US Secretary of State Walter Larson, who happens to be the only adviser telling the American President not to launch a preemptive attack on Pakistan.

The 56-year-old, who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Mystic River (2003), says the writers of the show are "courageous enough to portray American foreign policy as a flawed thing, and that there's a level of insanity in certain factions within the government, and also a level of people with good intentions - hence the battle between the two".

He says his character, Larson, and his outrageous antics were not necessarily inspired by any real-life figure, but adds that it is nevertheless an accurate depiction of "the larger appetites" of many people in power.

"Satire takes what is possible and illuminates it. It is not necessarily biographical, nor should it be - because that would probably be less entertaining," says Robbins, an Oscar-nominated director for Dead Man Walking (1995) who also helms an episode of The Brink.

Black - the comedic actor best known for School Of Rock (2003) and the Kung Fu Panda films (2008 and 2011) - plays Alex Talbot, a lowly employee at the US Embassy in Pakistan who, together with his driver Rafiq (Mandvi), tries to help Larson avert a war.

Black and Mandvi insist that, unlike many popular dramas about international politics, The Brink will take potshots at all the fictional governments portrayed, be they American, Pakistani, Indian or Israeli.

"I feel like we're a different animal because we're saying there are people in those regimes who are crazy and people in our regime who are crazy," says Black, 45. "It's kind of a crazy world, so I don't think we are saying (Americans) are better than anybody else."

This exaggerated depiction of geopolitics contains a kernel of truth, according to Mandvi, who appeared on the popular satirical news programme The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and also serves as a writer on this series.

He says: "It's funny - we have this idea that all our politicians and diplomats live with such nobility and are doing good. But we pull back the curtain a little on this show and, through satire, show that a lot of their decisions are made by greed, narcissism and dysfunction.

"And having spent nine years working on The Daily Show, I actually think the people who run our world actually do often operate that way - that it is more like The Brink than, say, The West Wing."

Mandvi, a 49-year-old American of Indian descent, takes pride in the fact that the series, set partly in Pakistan, does not take the usual approach to non-American characters.

He says: "When you meet Rafiq's family, they are not the typical Pakistani family that most Americans are used to seeing on American television. They are an academic, wealthy family, which is actually the kind of family most of my Pakistani friends come from back home."

In fact, Rafiq's family is more educated than Black's character, who, for comedic purposes, is painted as a stereotypical "ugly American".

"The family actually knows more about global politics and American foreign policy than the guy who works for the State Department. So I think that is an interesting perspective that we were able to show, in a way that I don't think you see on shows like Homeland or 24," Mandvi adds.

He and Black believe American audiences may be growing more receptive to satire, thanks in part to the success of The Daily Show and other programmes that spoof the news.

"I actually don't think we have enough of it," Black says. "I think the time is ripe for a show where we are talking about geopolitics and everything that is going on in the world, not just about in America."

The show is not too worried about offending any countries or governments because its characters and situations are entirely fictional.

So there is unlikely to be a repeat of what happened with the 2014 satirical film The Interview, whose unflattering portrayal of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un prompted a hacking attack on the company that owned the studio, along with threats of violence.

"The Interview was a crazy situation - it changed the way studios think about the risk versus the reward," Black says. "But that was all about going after Kim Jong Un - a real guy who is actually in power right now, so that was a very unique situation."

The Brink, on the other hand, has more room to manoeuvre.

"Because we're using fictionalised narratives, we have a lot of latitude in terms of where we can go and how we can show these issues on a macro level," says Mandvi.

"We're not saying, 'Oh, this is Kim Jong Un'. Because ours are made-up characters even though they are inspired by things in the world."

stlife@sph.com.sg

The Brink airs on HBO (StarHub TV Channel 601) on Mondays at 10.30am, with a same-day encore at 10.30pm. It is also available on HBO On Demand (StarHub TV Ch 602) from Monday (June 29).

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 25, 2015, with the headline 'Politically incorrect at the top'. Print Edition | Subscribe