Four episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
HBO’s Ballers, the football dramedy meant to scratch the lingering itch left by the beloved Entourage, returns this Sunday for its third season, which doesn’t stray far from the series’ trusty playbook. The show’s greatest boon continues to be star and executive producer Dwayne Johnson, who carries it with his (currently highly, highly lucrative) easy charisma and ever-improving acting skills. The first four episodes of the upcoming season provided for review deliver the same rock-solid, bro-mode entertainment of the first two seasons and, while still never clicking as well as Entourage, adequately fills the niche left by that show in HBO’s stacked lineup.
Season 3 picks up with ex-NFL player turned athlete financier Spencer Strasmore (Johnson) as he tries to finesse the biggest deal of his career, moving the Oakland Raiders to the bright lights of Las Vegas. The arc is unabashedly informed by the team’s real-life migration and works quite well as the season’s narrative spine. Like Entourage, much of Ballers’ appeal lies in watching its characters live lavishly in an exclusive, celebrity-only bubble that normal folk like us will never see the inside of in real life, a premise made all the more compelling with the help of real-life celebrities (Steph Curry makes a quick cameo this season) and scenarios, like the Raiders relocation.
Beyond the show’s lavish-life hook and big-money plot developments, the real meat is watching the cast of characters, amusing idiots all, get into deep trouble, get out by the skin of their teeth, rinse and repeat. Ricky (John David Washington) is forced to face the fears of fatherhood when he forgets to “cover his little man up”; Vernon (Donovan W. Carter) and Reggie (London Brown) pursue a “medicinal” endorsement that threatens to compromise Vernon’s career; and Charles (Omar Benson Miller, charming as always) is offered a promotion that tests his fortitude and public speaking skills.
Meanwhile, Spencer and his partner (boss, really) Mr. Anderson (Richard Schiff, grating in the best way) bend over backwards to woo billionaire casino owner Wayne Hastings (Steve Guttenberg) into going into business with them, which proves to be a longshot proposition considering Hastings couldn’t possibly be making money faster than he already is.
Johnson has been a magnetic, larger-than-life onscreen presence since the peak of his previous career in the WWE almost 20 years ago, but his ability to exude sensitivity and emote on a smaller scale continues to improve project by project. Spencer’s B story deals with his concerns over infertility (he’s not ready to be a father now but he’s sure he will be down the line), a plotline that could be laughable but is grounded by Johnson, who garners sympathy with subtle slumps of the shoulders and catches in his voice. Moments of sincerity like these are priceless in a show that is otherwise flat-out ridiculous.
It’s fun to watch Ricky indulge his childish tendencies and blow thousands of dollars at a craps table in Vegas, or to chuckle at the manic, expletive-laden outbursts of Rob Corddry’s Joe. These guys all have their virtues, but at the end of the day, they’re imbeciles throwing around lots of cash, which makes all of the drama generally low-stakes and easy to laugh off. Ballers remains one of the breeziest, easiest-to-watch shows on cable, and that’s a good and bad thing.
Watching Ballers is mindless enjoyment, but the show also feels completely disposable, with characters that, while entertaining and decently acted, don’t leave a big impression at the end of the day. This is the reason the show hasn’t found nearly the success of Entourage, whose cast of characters transcended the series and became recognizable across the entire pop culture spectrum.
Ballers isn’t all that ambitious of an endeavor other than its attempts to look flashy and more expensive than anything else on TV, and as a result, the show doesn’t carry much longevity or drum up much interest beyond its young-male demographic. The dialogue doesn’t crackle as much as it should, the imagery is typical money-money-shiny-shiny music video fare, and the humor is uniformly shallow and unclever. Aside from its lack of artistic ambition, however, it’s kind of hard to bellyache about Ballers. It’s inoffensive, good-natured, low-risk entertainment made for people who want exactly that and nothing more.
Ballers remains one of the breeziest, easiest-to-watch shows on cable, and that’s a good and bad thing.