‘Brink,’ ‘Ballers’: De­fense with a lot of of­fense

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUMMER TV PREVIEW - BY HANK STUEVER hank.stuever@wash­post.com

Part “Wag the Dog” and part “Dr. Strangelove,” HBO’s un­for­tu­nately flac­cid new com­edy “The Brink” (pre­mier­ing Sun­day) is a caper set in the midst of a Pak­istani coup d’etat. Jack Black stars as Alex Tal­bot, a low-level diplo­mat in the Amer­i­can Em­bassy in Is­lam­abad. As a mil­i­tary revo­lu­tion against the coun­try’s newly elected pres­i­dent be­gins, Alex is out scor­ing weed with his re­luc­tant driver Rafiq (Aasif Mandvi). A mob at­tacks their car, and the men are forced to flee on foot.

In Washington, Sec­re­tary of State Wal­ter Lar­son (Tim Rob­bins) is in­ter­rupted from his af­ter­noon dal­liance with a pros­ti­tute to get to the White House sit­u­a­tion room, where an in­de­ci­sive Amer­i­can pres­i­dent (Esai Mo­rales) is be­ing urged to bomb the be­je­sus out of Pak­istani mil­i­tary tar­gets be­fore the new regime can sell off the coun­try’s nu­clear weapons to ter­ror­ists. On a Navy car­rier in the Red Sea, a pair of hap­less fighter pilots (Pablo Schreiber and Eric Ladin) are scram­bled in prepa­ra­tion to at­tack — but they’ve ac­ci­den­tally taken mor­phine in­stead of Xanax.

Lar­son, fight­ing off a painful (but some­what funny) kid­ney-stone emer­gency, hops on a plane with his long-suf­fer­ing aide (Maribeth Monroe) in an at­tempt to un­der­mine the coup and avert the cri­sis. All hopes hinge now on Alex, who, af­ter he’s cap­tured and wa­ter­boarded, finds him­self at the cen­ter of the ac­tion.

“The Brink” is a lit­tle too stale and dis­or­ga­nized to act as the “Veep” of for­eign diplo­macy, but it does pro­voke a chuckle here and there. Black sets the pace with his shop­worn shtick, while Rob­bins clearly en­joys another chance to play a com­i­cally ego­ma­ni­a­cal gov­ern­ment of­fi­cial. The fun­ni­est scenes in­volve the two fighter pilots, par­tic­u­larly Schreiber’s Zeke “Z- Pak” Til­son, a dec­o­rated ace who’s fail­ing to jug­gle his per­sonal crises ( he’s the ship’s drug dealer and has im­preg­nated a col­league) and prob­a­bly wel­comes the op­por­tu­nity to crash land in the mid­dle of a Tal­iban- in­fested nowhere.

“The Brink’s” prob­lem isn’t that it has too much go­ing on at once but that it seems to have toomany cooks in its kitchen. The cred­its are heavy with a larger-than-usual ar­ray of writ­ers, pro­duc­ers and di­rec­tors, which may ex­plain why the show fails to lo­cate a co­her­ent tone from episode to episode. What­ever “The Brink” is try­ing to say about the state of world af­fairs — and as things progress, the show does seem de­ter­mined to make a point — is lost in the ex­e­cu­tion. Soon enough, this brand of glob­ally minded satire co­a­lesces into a gi­ant corn­ball.

‘Ballers’

The moves in HBO’s other half-hour show pre­mier­ing Sun­day, “Ballers,” should be in­stantly rec­og­niz­able. (Hint: It’s ba­si­cally another “En­tourage,” set in the world in pro­fes­sional football in­stead of the film in­dus­try.) Just as fa­mil­iar is the tone of moral am­biva­lence: With one hand, “Ballers” seeks to celebrate the ex­cesses and ex­ploita­tions of the NFL, and with the other (weaker) hand, it at­tempts to in­dict the same sys­tem.

Dwayne John­son stars as Spencer Strasmore, a re­cently re­tired player try­ing to rein­vent him­self as a money man­ager in Mi­ami, where pro ballers (not just Dol­phins) and their wives, mis­tresses and hang­ers-on flock like preen­ing birds. Hired at an in­vest­ment firm by a fame-ob­sessed jerk of a boss (Rob Corddry), Spencer is un­der pres­sure to pull all his con­nec­tions and per­suade top play­ers to in­vest their mil­lions with the firm.

His big tar­get is a ris­ing Dal­las Cowboys star, Ver­non (Dono­van Carter), who is be­holden to his child­hood friend and man­ager, Reg­gie (Lon­don Brown), and a large ret­inue of rel­a­tives and friends who’ve quickly spent all his rookie money. Spencer and Ver­non’s agent (Troy Gar­ity) work to get a$71 mil­lion, five-year con­tract re­newal, but there’s still a dan­ger their client will ditch them. “Ballers” makes clear that the only change inthe nearly 20 years since Cuba Good­ing Jr. coaxed Tom Cruise to scream “Show me the money!” in “Jerry Maguire” is that there is so much more money in­volved now— and that “bling” is still a word.

An­tic­i­pat­ing its au­di­ence’s de­sires, “Ballers” mainly fix­ates on cars, yachts, houses, top­less women and raunchy sex — and a nom­i­nal amount of football. It’s hard to tell whether “Ballers” means to make the high life seem as rote and empty as it does (my hunch is that the pro­duc­ers and writ­ers are given more to bouts of envy than ser­mo­niz­ing), but the show and its ac­tors are so much bet­ter when zoom­ing in on se­ri­ous mat­ters, such as the pos­si­bil­ity that the Vi­codin-pop­ping Spencer suf­fers from neu­ro­log­i­cal dam­age from his years on the field.

Bet­ter still is a sto­ry­line that seems more of an af­ter­thought, in which Spencer’s friend Char­lie (Omar Miller), newly re­tired from the Tampa Bay Buc­ca­neers, takes an en­try-level sales job at a Chevro­let deal­er­ship— which is a more in­ter­est­ing story as the ba­sis for a se­ries than the cease­less joy rides, hook­ers and blow that “Ballers” feels ob­li­gated to pro­vide.

Ballers (30 min­utes) pre­mieres Sun­day at 10 p.m. on HBO.

The Brink (30 min­utes) pre­mieres Sun­day at 10:30 p.m. on HBO.

In a global cri­sis, the satir­i­cal mis­siles of ‘The Brink’ are mostly duds. And ‘Ballers’ treats the NFL with an ‘En­tourage’style moral am­biva­lence.

MERIE W. WAL­LACE/HBO

Above: In the com­edy “The Brink,” Alex Tal­bot (Jack Black), a lowlevel diplo­mat in the U.S. Em­bassy, is ac­ci­den­tally thrust into the cen­ter of the ac­tion amid a coup in Pak­istan.

GENE PAGE/HBO

Be­low: Dwayne John­son, left, with An­abelle Acosta and John David Washington in “Ballers.” The Rock por­trays a re­tired NFL player try­ing to rein­vent him­self as a money man­ager in­Mi­ami.

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