Dwayne Johnson has been steadily cultivating his acting reputation for years now. Since his early days as The Rock (yes, Wrestling is acting), to the godawful Scorpion King, the Fast and Furious franchise, last year’s San Andreas and the upcoming Baywatch movie. He’s proven himself to be more than muscle, along the way giving some surprisingly charming performances and displaying impeccable comedic timing. Ballers feels like a vehicle crafted to showcase the man’s talents, which is no bad thing at all.
Johnson plays Spencer Strasmore, a former NFL player who, after retirement, has used his insight and connections to work as a financial manager for players. Together with his associate Joe (Rob Corddry), they try to woo new clients, keep them on the right path, and often clean up after their messes, all while trying to ensure their commission. While dealing with rookies, pros towards the end of their career, and everything in between, Spencer also has to deal with his own financial and health issues after his time in the game has come to an end.
What Ballers excels at is showing the douchbaggery and exploitative side of the sports industry. Emphasis on the latter. Industry is first and foremost here. Players, agents, hangers on and arm candy, all looking to exploit the business for their own gain. Spencer is portrayed as someone who genuinely wants to help (as well as get a cut), something stemming from mismanagement of his own wealth leading to much of the success he projects being something of a facade. The Miami setting befits this false aspect of his personality as well as giving the show an exotic feel.
Ballers is first a comedy, but one that works in more dramatic elements. The darker side of fame and overindulgence are hinted at, as is corruption within the game and seeds are even sown for tackling controversial health issues, notably long term brain damage. But the show doesn’t spend too long wallowing in such things, it doesn’t go deep enough to be gloomy or fully embrace the raucous nature of the comedy it occasionally flirts with. Some may yearn for an embrace of one side over the other but the tone is balanced to create a digestible piece of programming, especially with its 30 minute episode run-time and snappy pace.
Johnson is front and center here, from every aspect of the marketing to the show itself. He’s used mostly as a straight man although his wry comedic tendencies are unleashed on occasion. He’s a savvy choice for the lead. The charm and flash seems a fit for this man with a fast car and finely cut suit but Johnson paints him in a far more nuanced and sympathetic light, his body language alone speaks volumes. Corddry is great as Joe, a looming specter of what Spencer could be if he gives into the exploitation and excess of his job. A brash sort who revels in the party wake left by his celebrity clients and provides much of the cruder comedic content.
The other notable cast members make up the current or prospective clients for the pair, players at different phases of their careers which provide an interesting cross-section of the game. John David Washington is the most memorable as Ricky Jerret, a brash receiver looking for some redemption. Also notable are a former linesman turned car salesman Charles Greane (Omar Benson Miller) and “next big thing” Vernon Littlefield (Donovan W. Carter). Where the show does stumble is in female representation on the cast. Most girls feature as arm candy for the players. Frankly it’s a fault of the sports industry and society rather than something to be laid at the feet of the showrunners. The exceptions to this are Arielle Kebbel, as sports reporter Tracy Legette, a good if underused foil for Johnson, and Jazmyn Simon as Julie, the wife of Charles Greane. A straight talking, no bullshit taking, breath of fresh air in the series.
THE PACKAGEAs you expect by now, HBO has put out a solid Blu-ray release. Picture quality is good; colors pop, details are impressive and no artifacts are noticeable. Miami looks pretty outstanding here. Special features are limited to Inside the Episodes. Short (less than 2 minute) episode recaps with executive producer Evan Reilly and a rotating selection of cast members. There’s also a Digital copy code for download.
THE BOTTOM LINEBallers is a curious series that veers towards comedy more so than drama. That renders it somewhat less impacting than it could be, but perhaps more palatable for a wider audience. It’s undoubtedly something that would come across to some as a bit of a “Bro-show” and doesn’t really offer anything new, but there is no doubting Johnson’s charm. He’s just so darn affable and that’s enough of a reason to give Ballers a try.
Ballers: The Complete First Season is available from HBO Home Entertainment from June 14th, 2016.