HBO’s The Brink debuted Sunday night and while it wasn’t a disaster, it was very clearly…off. The comedy wasn’t working, the jokes weren’t landing and somewhere along the line, the cart went off the track and never quite crashed.
The Brink is a dark political comedy about a bunch of people with very human ailments, like drug addiction, delusions of grandeur and sexual fetishes, who try to stave off World War III. Fine. Bam. Sign me up. I’m prone to gravitate toward this type of comedy because for eight years we had a Chief Executive who I wouldn’t trust to run a yard sale. We had generals with questionable mistresses and Secret Service agents screwing prostitutes. And every day, outside our collective field of vision, there’s all kinds of shit going down that we don’t know. This isn’t conspiracy theory stuff, this is just good old fashioned human error. It happens every day in every single industry, every single academic institution and every single government in the world.
Because we’re human.
So it was with mild (the show was kind of shit on universally before it aired) anticipation that I hoped the show was written for me. Maybe other people just didn’t get it. Maybe it was Draxxing over their head.
But no. It’s not good. Yet.
Whoa! Whoa! Don’t reach for that panic button yet, Tim Robbins. There has to be something rotten in Denmark.
Here’s how it works. Usually, and by that I mean 99 times out of 100 a TV script sells on the strength of its Pilot script. Period. That can happen in a number of ways but it’s highly uncommon for a bad pilot script to get sold and it’s a near impossibility for it to get greenlit. You wouldn’t believe the sheer number of hurdles a project has to clear to get even a sniff of airtime. It’s prohibitive.
There are a few reasons for this. First, there are like 3000 pilots floating around the industry every year. There used to be a certain season where all the TV shit ramped up but with the arrival of the Amazons and the Netflixes and the 24/7 desire for new content, those days are virtually gone. Projects get bought and sold and crewed up year round and not just in NYC and LA like they used to. Productions are world wide. There are solid shows coming out of Canada and Australia and New Zealand and of course the UK.
But still, words on the written page are almost always the deciding factor. Every once in a blue moon you’ll have a favor to a certain production company or you’ll have nepotism or someone closing out a certain deal clause, but seriously- those don’t get made.
The other thing that’s kind of nuts about this is it’s HBO. HBO is the absolute most coveted spot in the TV world. Landing a gig on HBO is achieving the highest rung on the TV ladder and it’s been that way for a long time. So it’s pretty strange that they whiff like this.
Thirdly, this cast is full of heavyweights. Even the ancillary roles have some real chops. I saw a five second clip of the American Amabassador to Pakistan and it was John Laroquette.
That dude knows comedy. Tim Robbins knows comedy. Jack Black knows comedy. I mean, these guys don’t sign on to this project to embarass themselves.
Here’s what I think happened. (And this is just my guessing…I don’t have any insider information about this project). I think this is one of those series that hasn’t found its voice yet. The cast hasn’t gelled. And my guess is that you had some big names involved in the pilot that actually hurt the piece.
Jay Roach, for example. Jay Roach is a name you hear in every meeting about comedy in Los Angeles. He is, by all accounts, just a fabulous human being and a great person to work with. Jay Roach directed the pilot and I’m sure everyone deferred to him on set because he was the 800 lb gorilla.
But Jay Roach, in my opinion, has lost his fast ball. He’s lost his ear for comedy. I’m not sure when it happened but here’s his full list of directing credits…
…and I can’t really sit here and say I love any of these movies, or that they’ve held up well over time. I remember everyone in the industry absolutely coveted Dinner For Schmucks. It was as close to a sure thing as comedies get and Jay Roach could do no wrong. When it crashed and burned the shine came off him a little and judging by his subsequent list of projects maybe he’s had his attention elsewhere. Even back in the early days, the Austin Powers stuff was all Mike Myers and I don’t count anything with Ben Stiller in it because I 100% guarantee that Ben Stiller managed the trajectory of the comedy in the Fokkers movies. Ben Stiller, like him or not, (and I really do) has an absolute flawless comedy ear. He knows what’s funny in himself and others and can tweak a joke, edit a scene and adjust a cadence with the type of natural simplicity that other people just don’t have. This isn’t anecdotal. I’ve seen it with my own eyes.
You also have a first time writer in Roberto Benabib. Yes, he was a writer on Weeds but when its your first show all you do for a living is eat shit. Nobody trusts you. No one thinks you’re an amazing wunderkind. They think you don’t know shit yet and they hedge their bets that way. I’ve seen that with every single first time show creator. Add to that that Benabib co-wrote the script with his brother Kim, a novelist. That’s like the kiss of death. So you have two brothers, one who presumably speaks the language and has paid his dues and another who may or may not be an interloper.
That’s why you bring in a ‘veteran’ comedy director to right the ship. Someone solid like Jay Roach.
What about executive producer Jerry Weintraub, you ask? He’s been around forever. He must know what makes a great show. Wrong. Jerry Weintraub is the kind of known-around-town name that you use to secure bridge financing. He’s the name you use when you’re having your low low low level co-producer wannabes call around town to see what DPs are available. The cinematographers agent asks “who’s the producer?” and the low low low low almost secretary level co-producer wannabe says “Jerry Weintraub” and then the cinematographer’s agent knows the production is legit and isn’t some bullshit film student from AFI trying to land the great white whale. “Oh! How is Jerry?” says the cinematographer’s agent. “Oh he’s great.” Lies the low low low low last Wednesday I was in craft services on another lot wannabe co-producer. Because she’s never met Jerry Weintraub. Because Jerry Weintraub is 77 years old, had been producing TV since 1974, and lives in Palm Desert, and I’m guessing is too old for this bullshit and would need an actual reason to visit the sets of the various productions his company is undertaking at any given time.
So who is really running this whole operation? Here’s the list of credited producers. This is really interesting because there’s no big dog. Usually it jumps out at you. Let’s look it over.
So right away we can eliminate the co-producers. I’ve seen co-producers who have taken over films and been the go-to person but usually their credit gets bumped up a few notches by whatever patron is allowing them or commanding them to have more authority before the final show comes out.
Scratch Jon Poll. That’s either a friendship move or a one-off solid to give him credits toward a PGA sponsorship. Scratch Aasif Mandvi. That’s just a good agent getting him a different pay slice and/or just fulfilling a clause in his contract.
Scratch Jerry Weintraub. He’s either the bank or the project came through his company or whatever. Scratch Jay Roach. That’s just a clause he has that he gets at least an EP credit on anything he touches. Likewise scratch all the big name actors with big P (Producer) full bird golden eagle credits. They have similar clauses. Likewise with the Benabib brothers. Show creators get minimum EP credit as well. Actually, look at the little fuck you to Kim Benabib. He didn’t get the EP credit because he’s a newcomer. Someone at HBO was like “no fucking way am I giving a first timer an EP credit.” Co-Exec is a notch down and completely not a surprise. I’m sure HBO offered him an Associate Producer credit and Roberto’s agent had to get on the phone and negotiate up. This shit is constant, and again, I have no inside info, but this is how it always plays out.
So that leaves Dave Holstein. Now I don’t know Dave Holstein and it’s fishy that he only has a big P for 9 episodes instead of 10 but my money is that the genius behind all of this is Dave Holstein, in the Library, with the revolver. I don’t know Dave Holstein but after looking him up and seeing that he also has minimal credits,
I’m willing to go out on a limb and guess that Dave Holstein might just be special. Because this seems like Roberto Benabib came up with a fun, kind of Dr. Strangelove-y idea while working on Weeds and pulled in his buddy Dave Holstein and said “dude, we can do this.” Roberto’s bro joined the action and this three headed group of something managed to not only secure funding, but net some pretty amazing talent and land on HBO’s Sunday night lineup. If Dave Holstein can pull this shit off, Dave Holstein can do just about anything. Dave Holstein is no joke. I have never heard of this person but if I could I’d go out right now and buy shares of Dave Holstein. Dave Holstein could put a man on the moon as long as he had Roberto Benabib to plan it with and Kim Benabib to either be the brains or to buy them weed (you just never know with newcomers).
I don’t know any of these three, but somehow…together they’re superstars. I’m just guessing about the scenario based on a number of pretty basic clues, but if I’m even half right, what they’ve done is more or less unheard of. Either these guys are the real deal or they give one hell of a back rub.
So my guess is that they had a kick ass pilot that everyone kind of universally loved. The project got traction, appealed to someone at HBO and then got stepped on like a bag of coke. Every HBO exec gave notes. Every celebrity that signed on gave notes and then these poor bastards probably spent the last year of their lives pulling out their hair and trying to please every single person in the room. That is the game, unfortunately. And somewhere along the line their sure thing turned into a tone-deaf confused mess. And then Jay Roach came in and either made it more confusing or saved it. We’ll never know.
In either case, I’m sticking around to see what they come up with. After a few more episodes we’ll know if this show finds its voice, and we can either watch the three amigos become the next Vince Gilligan or just the latest casualty of a development system run amok.
Time will tell.