HBO's 'The Brink' Puts The Situation Room In Situation Comedy

Jun 20, 2015
Originally published on June 21, 2015 4:04 pm

HBO's new comedy The Brink refers to a world on the brink of nuclear warfare — possibly one of the least-funny premises imaginable. But the two brothers who created the show cut their teeth on a particular kind of political scripted satire that had its heyday in the 1960s and '70s. Think Dr. Strangelove, M*A*S*H and Network and other films by Paddy Chayefsky.

"All movies that had a lot on their mind," says Roberto Benabib. He's the older brother, best-known for writing and producing the TV show Weeds. His younger brother, Kim Benabib, is also a writer. Their show is something of a response to the workplace and family-based sitcoms that seem so prevalent now and to the notion that sitcoms have generally ceded political satire to fake news programs, like The Daily Show, and sketch comedy. They wanted to put the situation room back in situation comedy.

"The show is about geopolitics," Roberto explains, "but it's also about nuclear proliferation."

The Brink tackles three main threads: the goings-on in a U.S. government filled with clueless ideologues, the struggles of fighter pilots living on a military carrier in the middle of the Red Sea, and the life of a Pakistani family coping with ongoing political turmoil.

Kim says, "I think that was very important to us — just knowing that there's this vast middle class that's educated and professional and moderate. That's not something you see on American television."

The Brink relied on numerous consultants — including uncredited ones — who, the Benabibs say, delivered off-the-record details like what really happens in the situation room when everyone gets hangry.

"We did an enormous amount of research," Roberto says. "We knew that this show wouldn't play unless the backdrop of it was accurate."

NPR turned to another expert to see just how accurately The Brink captured Washington, the military and Pakistani people and politics: Moeed Yusuf, the director of South Asia programs at the United States Institute of Peace. While he found the show "hilarious," he believes the fundamental premise is fanciful, especially the idea that a nuclear weapon could fall into the wrong hands.

"I mean, at least the way they present it, it's almost like, you know, it's a cupcake that somebody's going to run away with," he says. Still, much of the show rang true for Yusuf — from family conversations to the political sausage-making. "A lot of this, quite honestly, probably happens in the real world."

A real world overripe for old-school scripted satire.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

A new comedy premieres in the U.S. tomorrow on HBO. The subject is not very funny - nuclear annihilation. NPR's Neda Ulaby talked to the creators of "The Brink," who say it draws from a comic tradition that had its heyday in the 1960s and '70s.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: Comedy like "Dr. Strangelove."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DR. STRANGELOVE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Target distance of seven miles.

ULABY: That's the kind of sharp political scripted humor that inspired the Benabib brothers. Older brother Roberto is known for writing and producing the TV show "Weeds." His younger brother, Kim, is also a writer. They cut their comedic teeth as kids on social satires like "Dr. Strangelove," "MASH."

ROBERTO BENABIB: "Catch-22," the films of Paddy Chayefsky - "The Hospital," "Network," all movies that had a lot on their mind.

ULABY: That's why Roberto Benabib and his brother decided to make a comedy that moved away from the office and family-based sitcoms we see so much of now.

R. BENABIB: Well, the show is about geopolitics, but it's also about nuclear proliferation.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE BRINK")

JACK BLACK: (As Alex Talbot) Evening, Mr. Ambassador, looking forward to the party tonight.

ULABY: The tension in "The Brink" comes from being on the brink of nuclear warfare, from the situation room in the White House...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE BRINK")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) What's going on in Pakistan?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) There are anti-government protests on the streets of Karachi and Islamabad.

ULABY: ...To being at those protests with an arrogant State Department employee and his Pakistani driver...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE BRINK")

AASIF MANDVI: (As Rafiq Massoud) Something's not right.

BLACK: (As Alex Talbot) That's no gay pride parade.

MANDVI: (As Rafiq Massoud) [Expletive]. They're still protesting the election results.

BLACK: (As Alex Talbot) Where do they find time to do all this protesting? Don't they have jobs?

ULABY: ...To the cockpit of a bomber deployed in response to the crisis.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE BRINK")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Man, the Xanax is starting to kick in.

ULABY: "The Brink" is unabashedly lefty, with a political point of view that might've been difficult to sell to a network. But not, says creator Roberto Benabib, to HBO.

R. BENABIB: The fact that there are no commercials so they're not beholden to advertisers, so there's no pressure there.

ULABY: Meaning they can criticize U.S. foreign policy by showing us a situation room filled with clueless ideologues who have to deal when Pakistan's taken over by a certifiably crazy former general. Only a few people, including the head of the CIA, even know who he is.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE BRINK")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) It's Umar Zaman. He's a former general. He's XISI leader.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) He's our guy.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) He was our hand-picked guy until he turned radical.

ULABY: And a president incapable of making a decision in crisis. Roberto Benabib says that character may be based on things he was told by people who've actually been in the situation room.

R. BENABIB: I'm not going to name names here, but there is an element to President Navarro, and perhaps other presidents, who did not know what they were going to do.

ULABY: Until someone convinced them. The Benabibs had to research three completely different worlds - the White House, the military, and the country and people of Pakistan.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE BRINK")

MANDVI: (As Rafiq Massoud) Uncle, I need to borrow your car.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As character) Of course. And if on the way back, you can stop and pick up some salty snacks before all the stores get looted? For this coup, we are going to be prepared.

R. BENABIB: We did an enormous amount of research. We knew that this show wouldn't play unless the backdrop of it was accurate.

ULABY: Like a Pakistani family drawn realistically.

R. BENABIB: And I'll say sympathetically.

KIM BENABIB: Yeah, I think that was very important to us. Just knowing that there's this vast middle-class that's educated and professional and moderate - that's not something you see American television.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE BRINK")

MANDVI: (As Rafiq Massoud) The military's cut-off cell reception.

BLACK: (As Alex Talbot) They do that a lot?

MANDVI: (As Rafiq Massoud) Yeah. It's a Pakistani tradition.

MOEED YUSUF: (Laughter).

ULABY: That's Moeed Yusuf. He's an expert in U.S.-Pakistani foreign relations at the United States Institute of Peace, and he enjoyed "The Brink."

YUSUF: Quite honestly. I mean, this was hilarious.

ULABY: Yusuf did have a few issues with the premise, including the idea that a nuclear missile could fall into the wrong hands.

YUSUF: I mean, at least the way they present it, it's almost like, you know, it's a cupcake that somebody's going to run away with.

ULABY: But much of the show rang true, he said, from the families' conversations to the political sausage making.

YUSUF: A lot of this, quite honestly, probably happens in the real world.

ULABY: A real world overripe for old-school scripted political satire. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.