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NPR Arts & Life

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

<em>The Brink</em> imagines how the White House situation room —€” and the U.S. secretary of state, played by Tim Robbins —€” respond when Pakistan is taken over by a certifiably crazy general.
<em>The Brink</em> imagines how the White House situation room —€” and the U.S. secretary of state, played by Tim Robbins —€” respond when Pakistan is taken over by a certifiably crazy general.

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."

Aasif Mandvi plays a Pakistani driver and son of an educated, middle-class family in HBO's <em>The Brink</em>.
Merie W. Wallace / HBO
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Aasif Mandvi plays a Pakistani driver and son of an educated, middle-class family in HBO's <em>The Brink</em>.

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.

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