HBO debuts two new comedies Sunday night that couldn’t be more different in tone.
Sports comedy Ballers roots its humor in specificity and realism; The Brink goes broad with over-the-top gags.
Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson stars in Ballers (9 p.m.) as retired football star Spencer, who’s trying to jump-start his post-football career as a financial adviser to wealthy sports clients. In Ballers Spencer is seemingly the only adult in a roomful of athletically inclined children who are always brawling or getting in trouble for incendiary comments on Twitter.
He’s under pressure from his boss, Joe (Rob Corddry), who says Spencer needs to “monetize his friendships.” That may include rising star Vernon (Donovan Carter) and bad boy wide receiver Ricky (John David Washington).
The pilot begins with rocky introductory scenes of a tangential story about another friend who died in a car wreck with a woman who was not his wife. More bad behavior from sports stars follows, but in its second half the Ballers pilot finds its footing and the show’s trajectory becomes clear, playing like an entertaining mix of HBO’s Entourage and Arli$$ and Starz’s Survivor’s Remorse.
Ballers doesn’t try to provoke belly laughs, but the bad behavior and character interactions are amusing enough, and Johnson makes for a terrific TV lead. (Perhaps Ballers is a grab for acting legitimacy after successful movie schlock like San Andreas.)
The Brink (9:30) tries harder yet feels less successful.
HBO comedies are well-acquainted with political cynicism (see HBO’s Veep), but there’s a broadness to The Brink that’s out of character.
HBO series are typically celebrated for their insight or seeming realness; The Brink is just silliness. It takes a while to get used to that, but this broad humor may win over some viewers.
Tim Robbins (Dead Man Walking) leads the cast as oversexed U.S. Secretary of State Walter Larson, who enjoys sexual role-playing and using unbelievably offensive language while in the White House’s Situation Room in front of the president.
Larson is a liberal who believes in diplomacy over a fight, so he’s at odds with another Cabinet member from the start of an international crisis.
“Let’s find out what the (expletive) is going on and then we can start World War III,” Larson advises.
“I was on the (expletive) roof defending the last chopper out of Saigon before my 19th birthday,” Larson later says to a conservative colleague who questions his bravery. “When you were 19 you were date-raping Radcliffe girls – or was it Harvard boys?”
The Brink offers a deeply cynical, comic look at a world in crises, bouncing among Larson, scheming Navy fighter pilot Zeke Tilson (Pablo Schreiber, Orange Is the New Black) and low-level foreign service officer Alex Talbot (Jack Black), who gets caught up in international turmoil when a rogue general seizes control of Pakistan.
“That’s no gay pride parade,” Talbot quips to his taxi driver (Aasif Mandvi, The Daily Show) when they come upon protesters burning Uncle Sam in effigy following the results of a presidential election.
Written by Roberto Benabib (Weeds) and Kim Benabib, and directed by Jay Roach (Game Change), The Brink is the opposite of Ballers. It’s not at all realistic, but the laughs it conjures will be heartier for viewers who appreciate dark comedy.
“This job (stinks),” Larson tells his aide. “I should have asked for secretary of the interior. No one is going to take you away from a hooker in the middle of the night to save Mount Rushmore.”
(out of five)
(out of five)