by Matthew Thompson
Ballers stars Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as Spencer Strasmore. Once a defensive standout for the Miami Dolphins, Spencer has hung up his cleats and is looking to leverage connections from his playing days to kick-start a second career as a financial manager. This is the jumping off point for what has turned out to be one of HBO’s highest rated comedies in years. It is also the setup for what has been a boring and lackluster season of television.
I referred to Ballers as a comedy and that is certainly how it is billed, but it would be a stretch to say the series is very comedic. It is largely devoid of humor with laughs few and far between. This may come down to half-hour programs being automatically slotted as comedies and hour-longs as dramas. And I’d have no problem with a more dramatic-slanting 30 minutes each week dealing with Ballers’ subject matter (and while we are at it I’d welcome more hour-long shows that go against the norm like Chuck or Jane the Virgin, but that is a topic for another time). Unfortunately, it doesn’t do much interesting dramatically either.
One problem with the show is how it presents conflict only to handwave it away later. This is particularly problematic with the Spencer character. Take for instance the issue that crops up at the end of the pilot of Spencer being more or less broke. We never see this affect him in any significant way. This is one of a number of conflicts (I go into the specifics in the bullets below) that pop up throughout the season that could have added some much-needed adversity to Spencer’s arc on Ballers, but the writers decide to just make them go away without Spencer breaking a sweat. It is a shame because I love The Rock and they have given him a boring and uninteresting role to play here. Fortunately he is a very charismatic actor and his charm manages to come through at times despite the dull material he is given, but it sure doesn’t seem like the writers are making the best use of him here.
The rest of the cast is a bit of a mixed bag. Ballers features three main fictitious football players dealing with cliché sports problems. The poorly acted Vernon is a young defensive tackle who can’t say no to his friends and family despite the adverse effects it is having on his finances. Charles Greane is a recently retired O-lineman who is contemplating a return to the field. And Ricky Jerret is the stereotypical diva wideout who is looking for a fresh start with the Dolphins after some off-field issues got him cut from the Packers. The least sympathetic of the bunch is surely Jerret, but he is also the most (and only) entertaining one out of the three. He actually gets some funny material to work with which helps, but I think a lot of credit must go to John David Washington, son of Denzel, for really making the Ricky character work. As a big Denzel fan, it is also fun to see a bit of him in the younger Washington’s cadence and delivery at times. The other major character is Spencer’s partner Joe Krutel played by Rob Corddry. If you know the actor, you know what to expect here as he is at his absolute Corddry-est in Ballers. His style of humor is a bit hit and miss for me, but at least the show is using the actor the way they should as opposed to how they are handling Johnson.
On top of all the issues I have brought up thus far, Ballers just isn’t my type of show. I don’t enjoy seeing these spoiled athletes cheat on their girlfriends and make generally dopey decisions. I don’t enjoy episodes being set at strip clubs and on sex boats. Maybe it is an accurate depiction of football players off the field, but I can’t say I find it entertaining to watch. At the same time, I love the underrated Starz comedy Survivor’s Remorse. It deals with a similar subject matter, but is funny and compelling and generally everything Ballers is not. So given this, me being a big fan of The Rock, and my love of football, I think there is a version of Ballers I could like despite some of the trappings of the subject matter. But Ballers simply didn’t deliver that at all. Instead it gave us a boring, forgettable freshman season of television.
- So the conflicts I mentioned earlier for Spencer. Him being broke never affects him. The seeming head trauma he has… he doesn’t, it is just psychological. Okay, so he has to confront Michael Cudlitz’s character because of that… who basically thanks him for ending his football career. His beef with Reggie just sort of goes away in the finale (though he was at least a thorn in Spencer’s side throughout the season, I’ll give Reggie that even though he was a terrible character). Spencer is also faced with a choice in the finale of staying with Anderson Financial with all of its advantages or taking a risk and going off with Joe. Instead he gets to have his cake and eat it too. The money, the boat and his buddy back at Anderson. It was completely ridiculous.
- Despite the issue I mentioned above, I thought Cudlitz was fantastic in his guest role. He is a really great actor and his character was more interesting than pretty much everyone on this show.
- The Rock does get to be much more entertaining after Spencer gets his clean bill of health. He seems to let loose a bit, so that was a plus.
- The Rock singing Taylor Swift was funny, but it was way more hilarious when he did it on Lip Sync Battle.
- I like the music selections for the show (not a spoiler, but I wanted to say it).
- Also not a spoiler, but seriously try Survivor’s Remorse if you like this type of show. It is hilarious.