The financial failing and critical lashing the “Entourage” movie faced earlier this month proved the former HBO series had no place in modern society. Yet previews for the creative team’s follow-up series looked an awful lot like what the bros’ tried to sell us before. From former “Entourage” executive producers Rob Weiss, Mark Wahlberg and Stephen Levinson comes “Ballers,” a trip inside the lives of NFL athletes via their financial manager Spencer Strassmore. Played by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (who also executive produced the new series), Spencer is an ex-Miami Dolphins linebacker known for his punishing hits more than his monetary wherewithal. But nothing will stop Spencer from winning over former teammates and rivals to his new business via outlandish parties, big money promises and lots and lots of women.
Sound familiar? Part of “Ballers” certainly is, and anyone who loved Vinnie, E, Drama and Turtle ’til the end will undoubtedly enjoy much of what The Rock’s first foray into television has to offer. Yet those same viewers better be ready for a reality check between parties. “Ballers” is primarily concerned with having a good time, but it’s unafraid to tackle the real-world issues facing its larger-than-life subjects.
A repeated sequence of “Ballers'” first four episodes is one of Spencer’s memories. Taking the form of a nightmare, Spencer is haunted by a bone-crushing hit, the lasting effects of which are still a mystery. Just knowing he’s troubled by it is a huge step in the right direction, as the NFL — referenced by name, players, uniforms and logos throughout the series — is going through one of its ugliest eras ever. The concussion issue facing America’s favorite sport has plagued fans and the league alike, and the latest fictional take on the sport bravely doesn’t shy away from the controversy — so far.
With multiple retired characters on a search to discover who they are after football, Levinson’s series has the opportunity to address a pertinent problem facing players, fans and the culture at large in a way that’s more easily digestible for anyone who doesn’t want to swear off the sport entirely. Whether it will go as far as it should is yet to be seen. “Ballers” definitely earns its title by taking the players’ viewpoint; portraying football as a point of pride, love and newfound concern, in that order. Two of the series’ main characters retired early, including Spencer. While neither has specifically said they did it for health reasons, their inner turmoil over the issue speaks for them.
Some may say the show sugar-coats the topic or dodges it too often, but the HBO dramedy casts no illusion about what its primary focus is, as outlined by its unofficial tagline: “get rich, get laid, have fun.” Striking the perfect tone between those shallow motivations and the dark underbelly of a billion-dollar business isn’t easy, and through its first four episodes “Ballers” bounces back and forth between ignorance and investment. The pace is steady. The characters feel authentic. And The Rock carries the rest with an addictive swagger and occasional intimacy.
Interestingly enough, the former wrestling star really is shouldering the dramatic heft of the series. Rob Corddry is perfectly cast as his party-loving boss, but he and the rest of the actors who make up the “B” and “C” stories aren’t asked to do much more than have a good time. Many of those stories fall too far into cliched, predictable premises, and none of the female characters are given any motivation outside of their men. But this far in, the balance between comedy and drama keeps “Ballers” on its toes, especially with such a magnetic presence at the center (seriously — does anyone dislike Dwayne Johnson?).
Whether the key to “Ballers'” success is the absence of “Entourage” creator Doug Ellin or the presence of Johnson and EP Peter Berg (who did, admittedly, appear as himself on the old HBO series), the new focus on fame and fortune carries a welcome nod to reality. With transparency between fans and celebrities growing every day, acknowledging the biggest problem facing both parties is half the battle. Here’s hoping The Rock can carry “Ballers” through to an equally realistic end (zone).