“Mother — — — .”
“Yes. That is you.”
Before you read any further you should know Ballers is not like other HBO shows. It isn’t a sharp satire, it isn’t a sweeping epic which hooks you in and makes you more bloodthirsty than you honestly thought you had in you and it isn’t groundbreaking. HBO has developed a reputation of being a channel which caters only to binge-worthy shows featuring a high caliber of talent both in front of and behind the scenes. A lot of the negative reactions I’ve been reading regarding this series seems to be bemoaning the fact that Ballers isn’t up to HBO standards. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you should dismiss it out of hand. However there will be some adjustments of expectations necessary in order to fully enjoy the show it is, not the show you want it to be or the show it’s marketed to be, either.
Also, I will be making football puns. Scores of them. You’re welcome.
Ballers is the story of Spencer Strasmore (Dwayne Johnson, Furious 7), a recently retired pro football player whose new gig is as a financial manager. Spencer struggles to monetize his friendships as he also works to balance the excess of the pro football player lifestyle to which he has become accustomed. Acting as the starting QB for the show is creator/writer and Golden Globe recipient Stephen Levinson who counts Entourage, Boardwalk Empire and How to Make It In America among the shows he’s previously helped launch.
Joining Spencer on his journey and also struggling though for different reasons are pro football players Ricky (John David Washington, Malcolm X) and Vernon (Donovan W. Carter). Another former pro player Charles (Omar Benson Miller, Miracle at St. Anna) gives Spencer a view into a different way he could be spending his retirement. Spencer’s boss Joe (Rob Corddry, The Way Way Back) pushes him to embrace his new role while his former agent Jason (Troy Garity, Sunshine) helps keep Spencer sane. Also on the scene is continually-in-need-of-a-face-punch Reggie (London Brown, The Hustle), Vernon’s boy from back home who has run Vernon’s fortune into the ground. There are a couple of female characters too but let’s call it foreshadowing and not really address them.
Here’s where we get into spoiler territory so it’s your last chance to get out and view the series without the instant replay commentary. Let’s start on a positive note because it goes downhill from here a bit.
Things to appreciate:
Dule Hill (Psych) showing up as a guest star for more than half the season. His character Larry works for the Miami Dolphins and acts as a sounding board for Ricky while delivering a kick in the pants to Charles.
T&A — Hey, I’m not going to act like that isn’t a draw for this show. And there is a gratuitous amount so if you feel like scratching that itch don’t even worry, Ballers has got you covered.
The funny moments — There are some, for example the scene where Dwayne Johnson rocks out in his car not caring who’s watching.
Okay, now that we’ve huddled up let’s review our playbook. I mentioned adjusting your expectations. And I think if you are interested in any of the above three things you can enjoy Ballers. I think you can also enjoy it because you can see the potential inherent. But I don’t think it’s branded correctly and would again caution you to see it as a drama first and foremost then you may find the funny moments resonate more.
When I received Ballers in the mail and flipped over the package to read the series summary the first thing I see is the word “funny” in all capital letters taking up almost a third of the available real estate. That word is part of a pull quote used to sum up the series so naturally I cannot be faulted for putting in the disc with the expectation that I was about to be amused. And that is not what happened. From the get-go I had a hard time finding the humor and I’m not sure whether I’m supposed to be laughing at the characters I watch as opposed to with them or where this comedy element comes into play but the series certainly does not open on a chuckle leading to gut-wrenching guffaws by any stretch of the imagination. There are funny moments, absolutely. But the best I can tell is Ballers is funny the way any of the The Real Housewives franchise installments are. Apparently the comedy is in schadenfreude which would be fine except that doesn’t sustain itself through the season.
The male characters which dominate Ballers‘ landscape are ego-driven players with little understanding of, respect for, or empathy for the world around them. And at the beginning of the season not one of them has any sense of personal responsibility at all. Each and every character makes at least one choice based on pure ego which backfires.
Let’s do a quick play-by-play of our starting lineup and their “challenges” this season as well as perhaps how they end the season. We’ll start with Reggie because I dislike him so very much.
Reggie — Wastes Vernon’s money, does coke, tries to blackmail Spencer and get Vernon to retain him as his financial adviser over Spencer. He and Vernon do finally have it out and I literally could not believe what Vernon’s line in the sand apparently was. I mean we’re talking me yelling at the TV type of situation.
Vernon — Lets “friends” walk all over him, turns down a lucrative renegotiated deal before proceeding to get caught doing lines of coke off of women who may or may not be prostitutes, gets blackmailed with pictures of the aforementioned event, still manages to sign a multi-million dollar deal by the end of it all.
Jason — worries about getting fired and feels under-appreciated by both Vernon and Ricky whom he has to negotiate new contracts for. He is in and out for the season playing mostly a supporting role which makes the episode where he deals with his mom and her new love interest feeling even more out of left field than it already does.
Charles — Newly retired Charles feels adrift and takes a job selling cars at the behest of his wife. Worrying about his and wife Julie’s inability to get pregnant and where his life is going in general Charles falls prey to drugs, drinking, and excessive partying. And it leads him to begin an online flirtation with a woman who got his number from Ricky, but Julie finds out.
Don’t worry about him, though, because once Julie learns she’s pregnant she’s only too happy to believe Charles never took the flirtation too far and welcome him back home, where she encourages him to follow his dream of rejoining the NFL which he does with an unbelievable amount of ease.
Ricky — After his teammate and friend is killed Ricky handles his grief in um, a way — loudly screwing a woman in a bar bathroom. He gets into a fight that same night and is subsequently cut from his team, the Green Bay Packers. While Jason and Spencer work to find him a new team Ricky’s girlfriend Bella (Anabelle Acosta, Quantico) convinces him he needs to change. That change comes in the form of sleeping with one of his new teammates’ moms, which is awkward for all involved to say the least and leads to some confrontations…and strip clubs. But when Ricky goes live during an interview to apologize to everyone he doesn’t realize he left out maybe the most important apology — to Bella. So she leaves him and he retreats to his secret “fun house” where the booze, women, drugs and alcohol are overflowing.
When he sees Bella with another guy he loses it and accuses her of sleeping around. Bella finally takes off for good and it doesn’t seem to matter to Ricky because his absentee father shows up and tells him that his leaving was what made Ricky such a great player. Yeah, I’m not sure how those two things correlate either but okay.
Joe — Joe worries that Spencer isn’t willing to monetize his friendships to the degree that Joe wants him to. He lets Spencer know he only hired him for his access — that their mutual boss didn’t want Spencer there at all. Joe does several types of drugs over the course of the season, gambles, drinks too much, and is fired from his job once the entire Vernon blackmail scheme comes to light. It’s not surprising because their firm was the one to handle the party so someone has to suffer the potential fallout. He feels betrayed by Spencer when Spencer won’t come with him to form their own firm.
Spencer — Haunted by a tackle which left him injured and which ended the career of the guy whom he hit Spencer suffers from nightmares and headaches. He pops pain pills and tries to avoid dealing with it but his girlfriend Tracy finally convinces him to get checked out for Post Concussive Syndrome. He spends his last dime on a loan to Vernon who acts as though he’s entitled to it and who continually balks at Spencer’s advice, preferring to listen to Reggie because of some severely misplaced sense of loyalty. He tries to get along with Reggie but to say it’s an uneasy relationship is underselling it. When Vernon is blackmailed he calls Spencer who reluctantly agrees to handle it if only to see Vernon’s new contract come through so he can pay Spencer back, then they’ll be done. But it turns out the woman blackmailing Vernon knows Spencer, is an ex-girlfriend in fact, and Spencer nearly blows the whole payoff when he doesn’t want to agree to her terms. But once he does he’s assured a place handling Vernon’s money. Finally he learns he doesn’t have Post Concussive Syndrome and that the man whose career he ended (Michael Cudlitz, The Walking Dead) is doing just fine, thanks.
Those quotes I used around “challenges” earlier? Well they’re because those pretty serious issues I mentioned during the instant replay of each character’s season highlights are not treated as such, and it’s a real missed opportunity. The groundwork is set for some serious drug dependency storylines for more than one character. How about a baby mama drama for the indiscriminate Lothario? What about the struggle to get back into competition shape for someone out of the game? And actual money problems, like sleeping out of your car and then on the streets type things? Ballers could become an incredibly compelling drama, if given the chance. But it’s not, and again I find myself wondering where branding this a comedy comes from? Drug use? Infidelity? Alcohol abuse? Blackmail? Post Concussive Syndrome? Where is the funny here, exactly? Am I maybe supposed to think it’s funny that no matter what happens to these guys that it all rolls off their backs in the end, with only Spencer really showing any kind of change to how he approaches life? And that change is in the form of baby steps, my friends. Don’t kid yourself.
The thing which saves Ballers as it stands now is Dwayne Johnson without a doubt. His character is the most sympathetic and if the series was not focused as much on him as it is I don’t think it would have earned a renewal. But as it is it’s kind of hard to watch the show and care about anyone else who shows up because for the most part it’s like watching any of the many iterations of the “reality” programs which dominate our television landscape. Mostly you watch a cast of spoiled entitled narcissists bitch and moan and toss sums of money away and at their “problems.” Sums of money that we have no concept of having in our possession at one time let alone over the course of a year or more. But they feel free enough to waste in the way they do and yet somehow we’re expected to feel sorry for these douches? I don’t, and that’s probably the hardest part to adjust to when watching Ballers. These guys don’t have relate-able problems and they don’t treat their lives as anything but a game and their lifestyle as something they’re entitled to so it’s really hard to care when crap befalls them.
Helping to remedy that feeling at all though is almost every single female role of importance on the show. All of the women who matter have their lives together and it is these strong confident women that you can find yourself relating to. They understand reality and they are trying to be a grounding influence in their men’s lives to varying degrees of success however if we didn’t have their presence it would be very very difficult to watch this show. There’s Spencer’s girlfriend Tracy (Arielle Kebbel, I Melt With You) who helps him deal with the possibility of having Post Concussive Syndrome. She also doesn’t take any of his crap and calls him on his BS. She’s not a doormat at all and you know if she had a reason she’d leave Spencer in a heartbeat and that only makes her more likable.
Then there’s Julie (Jazmyn Simon, Sister Dirty), Charles’ wife who tries to provide structure for her husband and also a new direction for his life after football. Finally we have Bella, Ricky’s girlfriend who forgives Ricky for his past transgressions and gives him the support he needs as he moves to a new team. Understanding that these men have somehow managed to land these confident, strong, capable women makes you wonder what those women would see in these guys and that makes you look at the relationships and the characters more closely and with a more sympathetic bent than you would if they were just being presented as themselves without any foils. We want to understand why these women are with these guys because we know that it’s not their money. All of these women have it going on for themselves so we wonder what it is about each of these guys and that helps track through the rest of the season. Sort of, because it ends up almost all of them simply make excuses for their men until it becomes too much. It’s a shame these characters aren’t given their due and room to grow.
And then there’s the not-so-little problem of a lack of consequences. The season ends with everything working out for everyone thanks to a couple of too-good-to-be-true Jekyll-and-Hyde moments. That blackmail scheme? Turns out she just wanted to see if Spencer would say sorry as he handed her the check. That haunted feeling because of how Spencer ended a fellow player’s career with one hit? Don’t even worry about it, brah, you did me a favor as it ends up. Joe’s fired? Oh no he’s not. Because their mutual boss Mr. Anderson (Richard Schiff, The West Wing) has performed a complete 180 when it comes to Spencer and okays keeping Joe on after some truly three-year-old-having-a-tantrum behavior.
The worst/best thing about that, though? We don’t need to see these characters in season two. By not having a cliffhanger of any type and in fact presenting the season as sort of a limited run type of deal we can start fresh in season two, which gives me hope that Ballers can ditch the comedy label and become a drama with moments of humor sprinkled throughout.
To make sure we’ve covered the whole nine yards let’s touch on the acting. Dwayne Johnson shows the most range next to Rob Corddry who is very believable as Joe. I already touched on my enjoyment of guest star Dule Hill’s performance so let’s just mention that John David Washington and Donovan W. Carter (Ricky and Vernon, respectively) miss the catches they’re thrown. In Washington’s case he seems to have two basic modes: freaking out and way too much of a butt kisser. But that’s a step above Carter who sadly seems to only be able to be mellow, to put it nicely. His reactions are barely there. I don’t know if the QBs (aka the directors) called out a different play in the huddle before the snap or what went wrong but these two guys did not give convincing performances.
In terms of technical specs no flags on the play here. Though it’s set in Miami the 1.78:1 transfer doesn’t suffer from that fake orange patina so many other Miami shows love to embrace. Video is crisp and clear and in keeping with a quality level akin to a currently-airing show. On the audio side of things I was actually impressed with the way the levels were balanced. Partying is definitely one of the raison d’etres for this show and the dialogue levels in particular were handled very well. The Dolby Digital 5.1 was a pre-viewing concern but the many loud songs, yelling, and things being smashed all combined into a very nice audio package. No penalties for the (technical) special teams here.
In terms of special features a bit of a disappointment with only a short recap/interview following every episode. At about three minutes a piece they aren’t appointment viewing.
Although I usually avoid spoilers before watching a show I will definitely be keeping an eye on who is coming back for Season Two before I commit to anything. The way the first season ended with such a nice bow on it means I’m free to not care about these characters anymore and I can happily channel Frozen‘s Elsa unlike when I watched Game of Thrones and needed to see Joffrey suffer at some point. You watch Ballers because you are intrigued by a Dwayne Johnson who doesn’t rely on his muscles and a wide smile to carry his character. There is no justice for the idiocy of the rest of the characters and you will probably be okay with that depending on your T&A threshold as well as the discovery of new characters for season two.