Four episodes were provided for review prior to broadcast.
Just because HBO’s audience is paying premium dollars for premium content doesn’t mean they can’t enjoy a flight of fancy now and then. Game of Thrones and True Blood could be taken with varying degrees of seriousness while still providing genre fans a well-produced escape. But there are much simpler, baser fantasies a network with limited censorship and beaucoup budgets can produce, and they don’t require CG dragons. The new series Ballers sets out to fulfill the more pedestrian fantasies of sports fans and dude’s dudes who’d rather spend Sundays thinking about Vikings and Bears instead of wildlings and direwolves. As with most daydreams, the satisfaction proves fleeting.
Set in the same gleaming approximation of Miami envisioned by the likes of Bad Boys and Pain & Gain, Ballers spirits you away to the world of fantasy football. It’s not about shmoes sweating their draft pool picks every week, like in FX’s The League (then again, The League is rarely about that anymore either). Rather, Ballers explores the lifestyle one imagines must come with a career dedicated to playing pro football, taking you past the chains of the gridiron and behind the velvet club ropes separating fans from players.
With one of the stars of Pain & Gain in the lead, and another on as a producer, it won’t surprise you to learn that Ballers is a meathead’s paradise. The men shine beneath the Florida sun, sweat never threatening their bespoke suits; woman are plentiful, beautiful, and loose; vehicles come in two varieties: luxury or sport. The Miami of Ballers is a cornucopia of wealth, palm trees, and bikinis that pushes opulence to the border of being orgiastic. In other words: it’s this year’s model of ultimate male wish-fulfillment that Ballers has the opportunity to find something meaningful, or at least interesting to say about.
Unfortunately, the first four episodes of the series are too caught up in rubbernecking at all the pretty things populating Ballers to develop any sort of perspective on them. The “bigger, faster, more powerful” mentality of the game guides the priorities of Ballers through its infancy, which tries to justify its return to the well of hyper-consumer culture by offering more of, well, everything: more cars, more nudity, more excess. After just two hours, Ballers resembles late-period Entourage for its use of storytelling as just the gold chain linking one debauched setpiece to the next.
In its first two seasons, Entourage attempted a glitzy approach to Hollywood satire, before fully embracing the golden calf of bullshit it once feinted at tearing down. Developed by Entourage producers Stephen Levinson and Mark Wahlberg, Ballers at least has a more compelling foundation than HBO’s last foray into vicarious extravagance. Dwayne Johnson stars as Spencer Strasmore, a recently retired player whose championship ring hangs off his finger like a shackle. Trying to adjust to civilian life after a career of fame and fortune, Spencer transitions into becoming a financial manager for old teammates and the game’s next generation.
Ballers starts in territory far more in need of coverage than Entourage’s initially tired, then toothless jabs at L.A. stereotypes. The shelf life of an athlete is brief compared to an actor’s, even if the best can make enough in a decade of play for the average person to live comfortably off of for many lifetimes. The combined influences of wealth, public attention, and youth make professional athletics a constant minefield of off-field risks, while the game itself puts players in harm’s way every time they strap on a helmet.
A trio of players connected to Spencer (himself reliant on painkillers to cope with an old injury) touch on the various concerns a fan might not think about while watching their favourite stars go to work. Ex-teammate and fellow retiree Charles (Omar Benson Miller) struggles to find happiness while living in the memory of more glamorous golden years. Ricky (John David Washington) has to seal one final contract while his public notoriety starts to overshadow his talent. Naïve up-and-comer Vernon (Donovan W. Carter) has to support the family and entourage that have latched onto his coattails.
Like the NFL itself, Ballers mostly just pays lip service to concerns over the human cost of the game. As with Entourage before it, the stakes are low, despite the astronomical figures at play, and setbacks are usually temporary. The third episode sees Spencer and his partner, Joe (Rob Corrdry), throwing a wild and wildly successful corporate yacht party that’s threatened by last-minute gaffes the pair commits. One quick speech from Spencer and a little humiliation for Joe later, and everything’s back on track. When life hands these guys lemons, it promptly apologizes, then returns with their order of Cîroc.