Dwayne Johnson’s HBO dramedy, Ballers, is a slice of broad, high-performance, high-stakes, high-living that tries to concern itself with the humanity of the people in the world of professional football. That’s more than can be said for its spiritual cousin, Entourage (also co-executive produced by Mark Wahlberg and featured writing from Ballers creator, Stephen Levinson), which was nothing more than a power fantasy for entitled white dudes living in Hollywood blowing rails and screwing hookers with no actual repercussion.
The difference? Dwayne Johnson. As Mr. Rock is the executive producer (along with his Seven Bucks partner Dany Garcia) of Ballers, he is able to instill a little of what makes the world love his persona into the show. Johnson’s hard work ethic is the single most distinguishable attribute Ballers has that Entourage could never dream of and it’s that beating heart that saves the majority of the show from becoming a non-relatable and unrecognizable trifle. Because a lot of what Ballers is, is trifle. The consequences are light, even if they carry the world on their shoulders and are quickly dispensed and taken care of in the first season.
That first season of Ballers clearly wasn’t sure if they’d be back for round two. All routes taken were safe and the conclusion could have been a (mighty unsatisfying) series finale if The Rock’s star didn’t take off like it has. The consequence of actions and untold history of these characters are the opportunities season two has been given to raise the bar. For the most part, “Face of the Franchise” succeeds in giving Spencer Strasmore and crew problems to worry about going forward that won’t be simply overtaken.
Spencer and Joe (Rob Corddry) are leading the way at Anderson Sports Management and are sailing into deals and clients smoothly until Andy Garcia’s deliciously high-class sleaze bag, Andre Allen, enters the scene, stirring up ghosts of Spencer’s past. He brings with him his clientele, including Spencer’s former rival, the real-life Terrell “Sizzle” Suggs (I didn’t know “Sizzle” was a thing? I watch the NFL and feel like I should’ve known that before today because, as evidenced by his hoodie in the show, “Sizzle” seems to be a really big thing.). On an appearance for Jay Glazer’s sports talk show, Spencer and Suggs trade verbal barbs before landing actual fisticuffs right there on live TV.
My biggest gripe with Spencer’s physical rage moment is that The Rock has played the character so calm and collected that I don’t buy when everyone fears Spencer snapping back to his old ways. This should be an easy fix to make Dwayne Johnson a little more intimidating but I just don’t get that vibe with this show and his character.
Elsewhere, Ricky Jerret (John David Washington) doesn’t get the money he so deserves, causing him to go Leatherface on an ice sculpture at his 30th birthday party and Charles Greane (Omar Miller) gets a hint that he might not be as big a part of the Dolphins’ season as he once hoped. Both these arcs are familiar and predictable but are anchored by two good performances. Miller in particular has brought his character to life as the truest person to root for on the show and I’m willing to go down the rabbit hole with his eventual redemption, telegraphed as it may be.
Concluding the premiere, Spencer squashes his beef with Suggs, using his Dwayne Johnson charm to allude to the possibility of a more insidious plan. Spencer wants to dig into Allen’s client pool and hurt him where it pains the most: his wallet and reputation. This is kind of interesting stuff! Ballers could use more physicality when it comes to Spencer if they’re trying to pose him as any sort of violent threat but it’s definitely more interesting to see The Rock out-manipulate people rather than bash their heads in.
Ballers rides entirely on the charisma of Dwayne Johnson and the banter between he and Corddry. If it’s all just light drama and yuks, it wins solely for having its heart in the right place. Let’s hope the show runners find the cojones to really turn the screws into our characters’ ligaments and give us some drama worthy of all the talent on screen.