HBO pretty much created the model of peak-era television. And while the likes of FX, AMC and even Netflix have gotten in on the fun. HBO is still the definitive network in terms of creating shows that generate and maintain a buzz. It’s the network of The Wire, Six Feet Under, Oz and (the first season of) True Detective. Even comedies like Sex and the City and Curb Your Enthusiasm were groundbreaking in their own way. Hell, people still talk about that controversial Sopranos finale, a decade after the show left the airwaves.
Not every HBO attempt at prestige has hit. Luck was kind of a dud, as were John From Cincinnati and Divorce. And Boardwalk Empire never quite got there. But when you air water-cooler shows like Game of Thrones, you’re allowed a few mulligans.
Ballers, one of the network's most popular programs, is decidedly NOT a prestige show in the least. The dramedy, which airs Sunday nights on HBO, recently began its third season. For those unfamiliar with the show, Ballers centers on former pro football star Spencer Strasmore. For all his efforts on the field, and for all the money he made off of it, Strasmore – thanks to some bad investments – finds himself in a sort of post-playing-career financial bind. So he joins up with a financial manager not only to help pro athletes avoid the pitfalls that financially befell him, but also to help get his own finances in order.
Spencer Strasmore, as written on paper, isn’t anything special, just another former athlete looking for some sort of post-career trajectory. But Spencer Strasmore, as portrayed on screen by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, is as magnetic a character as you’ll find, mostly because Johnson himself may very well be the most magnetic actor in Hollywood today.
Strasmore is surrounded in the cast by Rob Corddry as Joe, the aforementioned financial adviser, as well as current pro football players like Ricky Jerret (John David Washington, son of Denzel) and Vernon Littlefield (Donovan Carter), former player Charles Greane (Omar Miller) and sports agent Jason (Troy Garity). These and other folks deal with life as a ballplayer, life as a former ballplayer, financial stresses, women, you name it.
In short, if you hadn’t seen Ballers but read a plot summary, you’d expect a sort of Entourage for the sports world. This isn’t entirely accurate, in that the stakes of Entourage never felt all that high. Even when Vincent Chase dealt with financial and substance-abuse issues, there was always a sense things would work out in the end, which they typically did. Ballers, meanwhile, tackles more serious topics (no pun intended), like post-concussion syndrome, absentee parents and financial ruin.
In short, Ballers is set up like a sitcom but certainly branches out into topics more befitting a drama. Yet, it’s not even close to a prestige-level program. Hell, it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to qualify Ballers as a bad television show, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
To make a sports analogy, Ballers is almost like a bad football team with a great quarterback; oddly enough, Texans fans have experienced this phenomenon in reverse for the better part of their history. Simply put, when you have Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers at the helm, it masks other issues on a football team. For purposes of Ballers, Johnson is most certainly that quarterback who has a way of elevating even the silliest of scenes by his mere presence.
And, boy, does Ballers have some mediocre scenes, mostly revolving around the cast. Corddry is a talented comedian but is mostly annoying in his role as Joe. Carter hasn’t starred in anything outside of Ballers, which is no surprise, since he can’t act. And while Washington is the best part of the show never to have competed in a professional wrestling ring, it’s taken the show’s writers into Season 3 to finally give him something to do.
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Despite all this, Ballers is pretty damn enjoyable as a television program. Unlike Entourage, which ran through plots the way Vincent Chase ran through women, Ballers remains steadfast in its central story lines, namely, Spencer’s dire financial and (potentially) physical straits. This gives the show a compass of sorts, even when it veers off-topic with regard to other stories.
And the various successes and mishaps involving secondary characters like Ricky Jerret and Charles Greane are quite entertaining. Ricky’s party house and Charles’s attempt to navigate a news conference as his team’s new assistant general manager both serve as worthwhile comic relief. There are even moments when one can’t help getting emotionally invested in a character, as was the case last season when Johnson’s Strasmore helped a misguided linebacker get his head on straight while landing near the top of the NFL Draft.
Is Ballers ever going to get confused with Game of Thrones? Doubtful, though it’s likely Johnson could elevate that program just the same. And it sure isn’t ever going to get the awards-show love of other HBO comedies like Veep and Silicon Valley. Nor should it; those shows are better.
However, as the workweek draws near every Sunday night, Ballers provides one last chance to escape reality for a few minutes while checking in on characters whose lives are likely nothing like yours at all. It may not be great, but for what it lacks in quality, Ballers more than makes up in entertainment value.