At first glance, HBO’s Ballers looks familiar. The show, created by Entourage producer Steve Levinson, features a group of free-spending hard-partying characters in an enticing world. Instead of Hollywood, though, the show is set in the sports world. They could have called it Sports Entourage.
Many reviews have noted this. “HBO’s Ballers is just Entourage for jocks,” Slate says. “Entourage is currently back and in theaters, which makes Ballers — the sports-world version of the show — feel even more superfluous,” reports Variety. “Ballers plays like a revamp of Entourage spiced with flavorings from Arliss,” says the Los Angeles Times. AV Club calls it “HBO’s latest wish-fulfillment playground for dudes” and says “the new comedy from the Entourage brain trust [is] a worthy successor to its vapid, for-bros-by-bros legacy.”
Those are fair assessments. Those who found Entourage’s excess off-putting probably won’t find much in Ballers; people who used the hashtag #TheBoysAreBack to celebrate the release of the Entourage movie have a new favorite show. But it’s a bit incomplete to simply call this a re-tread of HBO’s bro-tastic dramedy. Yes, in the pilot episode Joe (a financial advisor played by Rob Corddry) parties on a yacht with pretty ladies and the New York Giants’ Victor Cruz. It has one thing going for it Entourage didn’t however. It has The Rock.
Ballers is the regular series for Dwayne Johnson since he was a stalwart on WWE’s Raw and SmackDown (the latter was named after one of his catchphrases). There’s a reason Johnson was such a star as pro wrestler The Rock, and why he’s the first person to truly make the jump from wrestler to movie star. (Sorry, Hulk Hogan.) Only only needed to watch him in the ring to know he is not exactly the best actor, even among wrestlers. But he is just so likable. He has more charisma than all of the boys from Entourage put together. He gives you hope that Ballers, which premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. on HBO after True Detective, might just work.
Ballers stars Johnson as Spencer Strasmore, a retired pro football player who’s now trying to make a second career as a financial advisor. He deals with real-world post-NFL career issues (post-concussion symptoms, which he sees a neurologist for), attempts to navigate his way in a new career (he is not, at first, taken all that seriously) and works on a new contract for his star player, Vernon (Donovan W. Carter, who played football at UCLA). Another actor on the show, John David Washington (Denzel’s son), who plays wide receiver Ricky Jarrett, played college ball at Morehouse.
The Rock shines in every scene he’s in. He does not make a string of awful, unthinkable decisions, like Entourage’s Vinnie Chase often did — at least not yet. When Strasmore tells Joe his suit is custom-made, it doesn’t feel like pointless excess; he’s strategically pointing out his value to Anderson Financial in order to keep his place at the firm. Instead of a pal to the other characters, he’s more of a guardian.
Ballers has a few things going for it besides The Rock. Corddry is similarly good as a somewhat sleazy, somewhat confused financial advisor. Being former college athletes, the actors who play football players look like football players. And, as Entourage showed, a bunch of dudes hanging around and discussing large sums of money can be entertaining at times, even if only in a trainwreck sense. The best scene in the four episodes sent to critics to screen is in the pilot, where Johnson, Carter and others discuss signing a contract bigger than JJ Watt’s. The show’s sports setting allows athletes to make cameos, and sometimes that works out: Cruz’s cameo in the pilot is cute. (The pilot is directed by Peter Berg, who developed the TV and film adaptations of Friday Night Lights, the best sports television show ever.)
The show’s not great. It does have a lot of the same problems as Entourage. The constant b-roll partying scenes get tiresome. The first four episodes were slow and plodding, like an episode of Raw where nothing seems to happen. It seems torn between being a drama and a comedy. Occasionally it delivers neither. While the first four episodes were enjoyable, but also bland. So far, the only real engaging character is Johnson’s Strasmore. At times Ballers is just boring.
Ballers is in a good position, however. It has a chance to serve as a palate-cleanser for the brooding True Detective. Entourage gained popularity when it followed The Sopranos. HBO seems to have figured out airing a bright, cheerful show after a dark one makes for good Sunday night TV. Ballers is, yes, similar to Entourage. If it can find its way out of the same traps that turned Entourage from a critical darling to a complete mess, it could become solid, if unspectacular, viewing.