Producers Stephen Levinson, Mark Wahlberg and Rob Weiss have hit upon an HBO formula that works: pick a high-powered industry, and then track a group of attractive people as they try to navigate through that world. “Entourage” has been their biggest success so far, though the recent big screen flop is an indication that their lightweight modus operandi doesn’t have much in the way of substance or longevity. The fashion world set “How To Make It In America” was dropped after two seasons, which is a shame as the show included complex relationships and real struggle for its characters, though it was decidedly lacking with respect to the hot bods, hot cars and celebrity cameos common to “Entourage.” It’s those qualities that Levinson, Wahlberg, and Weiss return to in quantity with “Ballers,” which is essentially “Entourage” in the world of sports, and this is surely no coincidence.
There’s at least one key difference that makes “Ballers” marginally better than “Entourage,” and that’s Dwayne Johnson, a far more charismatic lead than Adrien Grenier, Kevin Connolly, Jerry Ferrara, and Kevin Dillon put together. He plays Spencer Strassmore, a retired football star now working for a Florida financial management firm, so that he might “monetize his friendships.” In other words, his boss Joe (Rob Corddry) wants him to sign his NFL friends to build the company’s portfolio of high profile clients. However, trying to make young players with the world and women at their fingertips see the light of fiscal and personal responsibility isn’t easy.
In addition to trying to maintain his new career, Spencer is a father figure to a trio of friends: talented wide receiver Ricky Jerret (John David Washington), whose fiery temper may cost him a job; former lineman Charles Greane (Omar Benson Miller), who retired from the gridiron too early and is struggling to figure out his next step; and big time rookie Vernon Littlefield (Donovan W. Carter), whose family is burning through this money as fast as he can make it. And in a nice little character touch that hopefully gets expanded upon further than in the first four episodes sent to press, Spencer is popping pills and is in denial about a possible neurological injury he received from all the hits taken while on the field.
The “Entourage” formula of agents and stars doesn’t just end with the characters here, but through the general structure of the show, which is usually for the worse. Women once again function as ornamentation, playing either wives, girlfriends, or sex objects without much to actually say or do, other than to appear nude on occasion. But while the show revolves around men and masculine activities, those characters are just as one-dimensional in their portrayal. And there’s not much in the way of actual drama, with the biggest plotlines in the first third of the season revolving around signing contracts, Ricky enduring locker room shenanigans from a new teammate, and Charles facing a marital crisis due to a series of sexy texts from a woman he met a party. By the third and fourth episodes —”Move The Chains” and “Heads Will Roll“— you can almost feel the writers room getting antsy to deliver something lively, as a giant party, its aftermath, followed by another smaller party, take up the entire narrative.
It’s difficult to know what audience “Ballers” is aimed toward. The glitter of Hollywood arguably offers broad appeal and a central hub of activity that breeds its own cultural sphere, which made the popularity of “Entourage” understandable, despite the quality of the show. The world of sports by comparison is still pretty regional, and remains mostly personality driven on the national stage. The Florida setting for “Ballers” doesn’t seem to have been chosen for any specific reason other than a more convenient excuse for bikinis, beaches and babes. While football was the undercurrent of the narrative and the specific setting, “Friday Night Lights” excelled due to a rich array of fully realized characters. But like “Entourage,” “Ballers” isn’t interested in exploring the culture of its milieu as much as it is interested in skimming its glossy surface. It’s a show where even the rookie player is past having to prove himself, and is instead caught between two people arguing how many tens of millions of dollars is reasonable to ask for in his next contract.
Everything is impeccable and shiny in “Ballers,” from the custom tailored suits Ricky wears to the fancy homes and cars of the multi-millionaire players. But if only that kind of surface attention and care was put into the plotlines, which play out with all the excitement of off-season news articles about internal team and player politics. Granted, there are plenty of die hard sports fans whose obsession includes following that kind of involved maneuvering. But even they might be dismayed at the rather disposable nature of “Ballers,” which gets on the field but never gets dirty. [C-]
“Ballers” debuts on HBO on Sunday, June 21st.