Ballers Series Premiere Review: Mo Money, Mo Problems

Ballers S01E01: "Pilot"

It's probably a coincidence that HBO is debuting its sports "exposé" Ballers in the same month that the Entourage movie hit theaters, but it doesn't feel like one. Knowing that this sucker comes from Steve Levinson, a former Entourage scribe, and seeing the first few trailers, it was hard not to come into Ballers with Vinny Chase and the boys in the back of my mind. And before you Head On fans pull out your pitchforks, know that coming from me, Entourage comparisons are not an indictment (as any listener of Totally Tubular can attest). You can remember back to 2004, before Entourage devolved into a celebration of brodom and tequila brands, it at least tried to comment on the weird world of Hollywood. 

That's the version of Entourage I saw in the first episode of Ballers. In its exploration of the world of professional athletes—chiefly the NFL—there was of course the requisite amount of luxury cars, woman-as-objects, and men power walking through offices, clubs, and the beautiful Miami scenery. But every once in a while, this pilot episode displayed an interest in something slightly more—in what it meant to dedicate your life to a violent sport, make a lot of money, and then retire and suddenly have... nothing. Its in those moments where I noticed the potential in Ballers, even if the show—like Entourage before it—was unlikely to truly dedicate itself to an exploration of the realities of athlete retirement. 

To summarize the plot quickly here: Spencer Strasmore (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson) is a former NFL star trying to find a second act as a financial advisor while struggling with all the pain that comes from football. While Spencer's seemingly responsible post-NFL career made him a mentor to current and former players alike, his douchey boss Joe (Rob Corddry) pushed him to monetize his relationships with his player friends—something he knew he needed to do to keep his lifestyle intact in the face of a declining checking account balance. 

Like with Vincent Chase, Spencer served as our entry point into the world of pro athletes, and Ballers immediately wanted us to know that this world includes everything you think it did—mistresses, bar fights, and a lot of pain killers. The opening sequence provided a kind of worst-case scenario for these men (I guess depending on how you looked at it), wherein a former Super Bowl champion's relationship with his mistress went so sour that she took control of the car and caused them both to perish in a fiery blaze. Worst of all, the dude had not prepared for the future, leaving his wife and children with a whole lot of nothing. 

That was an especially dramatic starting point, one that Ballers didn't seem to be THAT interested in throughout the rest of the episode, but it still worked to inspire The Rock's Spencer to pull his new career path together a bit more. Much of the rest of the episode was dedicated to Spencer's attempts to help current player Ricky Jarrett (John David Washington, a former football player and the son of Denzel), who can't help but bang randos in the club bathroom and punch douches who step to him for said banging. These scenes were, I guess, supposed to be funny, and while the occasional joke landed for me as a major sports fan (Ricky being so contrite that he'd pretend to be willing to play special teams), the show has the kind of Entourage-y rhythm where dudes were just cracking on dudes, without much actual humor in the mix. If we're keeping that comparison up that makes Corddry the Johnny Drama of this pilot, which was just far too unfortunate. He's a great comedic performer that needed to be used better. 

As a result, I enjoyed the more straightforward moments here: Spencer struggling with pain, Omar Benson Miller's Charles struggling to find a purpose in retirement and celebrating with his wife when he got a job at the car dealership, and the occasional discussion about how athletes regularly struggle to handle their money during and after their careers. There's no way that Ballers was going to turn into a scripted version of documentaries like League of Denial or Broke because it'll ultimately be easier to throw in some of Miami's top-shelf female talent, a couple of NFL player cameos, and call it a day, but I appreciated the early attempts at substance, however sparse they were. 

Of course, what made this episode mostly enjoyable to watch was The Rock, who slid into the role of Spencer quite easily (it helped that he played college football at Miami before washing out in the NFL) and managed to be uber-masculine and a little vulnerable at the same time. This was far from a complex or deep performance, but you have to imagine that the show would be demonstrably worse without The Rock, who is without question one of our most charismatic performers. As I mentioned to Tim on the podcast this week, a key reason why this show worked a little better than Entourage, at least early on here, was because The Rock was a better, more rangey actor than every one of the Entourage bros not named Jeremy Piven. He could probably take the character in weirder comedic territory or darker spaces if the show would ever let that happen, but as it stands, The Rock was still very watchable and the absolute best part of a relatively blah cast (mostly because there's not that much going on).

Very watchable is a good way to describe this pilot. Good? Not really. But there were some solid moments along the way, and I'm hopeful that the show's ambitions, however small, are not so immediately discarded for glamor shots of South Beach and low-consequence storytelling. 



NOTES


Peter Berg directed the pilot, and, as he likes to do, showed up in the episode as the Miami Dolphins head coach. Weirdly, I laughed at his performance the most in the pilot. His direction was totally fine too, I guess. It was very bright. 

— Cameos: DeSean Jackson, Stephen Jackson, Antonio Brown (all current players), Don Shula, and Larry Csonka (a couple of Dolphins legends). 

— Whatever Dulé Hill was doing in this episode, I'd like to see more of it. The weirder this show can be, the better. 

— Tim mentioned this on the pod, but this isn't a show that is likely give us a lot of real-time football action. Though Berg has some experience on that front (Friday Night Lights, of course), the brief flashbacks here were generally bland. 

— Random, but interesting: This Business Insider piece about how the show can use NFL logos and names without being sued. 


Comments (17)
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Jul 03, 2015
The mistress did not "take control of the car" she just started beating the driver that he could not dirve and crashed. Anything with the Rock is watchable, however, putting the world's greatest Douchebag in the show as his "boss" will hurt the show, I have never seen that eejit in anything and thought it good, he ruined every episode of Community he participated in and every second of hot tub time machine that had him in it was vomit inducing. That is how bad an actor he is and how bile inducing he is. I have watched the first two episodes now and can confirm that not even the Rock can stop the bile forming in my throat when Corddry in on screen, that's how crap he is. The show has an interesting premise as to what happens to athletes when they are on the decline or retired for whatever reason, but it also reinforced the common held idea that Pro Footballers are just total scum and egomaniacs thinking they are some sort of god because they play football, if these people are "role models" no wonder the world is in such a state. And the constant need for painkillers? Man up "pro" footballers and try to see what Rugby players go through, anyone who takes painkillers deserves whatever happens to them, will give it a few more episodes but the constant glorification of a bunch of A-holes just because they are football players means this can, and most probably will, get old very quickly. Look at me, I'm a dick who can take a woman in the bathroom, my girlfriend is so pathetic she buys me necklace and I can't handle anyone speaking to me who do not agree with my ideals so I will take a cheap shot at them, what a pathetic bunch of idiots football players are
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Jun 28, 2015
With so many lame and empty people portrayed, you need some more substance in the script. For now, blatantly lacking any of that.
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Jun 25, 2015
It was okyish....not much happened...we followed one player who got himself into some trouble and now he is back in again...but i don't know what to think of this show yet...
The rock is cool, but i don't know...something is missng, but can't tell exactly what...
will give it the four episode test and see...
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Jun 23, 2015
I understand the comparison with Entourage but this is way less fun! The jokes are not very funny. The only good thing about it is The Rock which has improved greatly in his acting from his early movie days. I will give it a few more episodes.

On the other hand, The brink which also premiere on Sunday is so funny. Jack Black and Tim Robbins were so good. There was no review on that though. I highly recommend The Brink.
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Jun 23, 2015
It was ok, has room to develop, worth the 4 ep taste test
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Jun 22, 2015
Like everybody here, I watched it mainly for The Rock - fact is, I doubt I would even check it out without him in it.

So far, so good; definitely has room to become great, so will definitely keep on watching.
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Jun 22, 2015
I really enjoyed it.....Rock was great and so was his boss......definitely has potential to be a hit show.
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Jun 22, 2015
Yeah, I'd go with 'very watchable' as well, and I also agree that The Rock was easily the best part of the show. Everything else about the show was just kinda... okay. Nothing really funny. Nothing really particularly dramatic, although I am interested a bit in The Rock's character trying to be successful. And I was surprised to see Dule Hill, didn't know he was on the show. I'd love to see more of him on it. I don't remember Entourage's first episode at all, but I kind of assume I enjoyed it a bit more than this one... maybe it was a bit funnier? I dunno.
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Jun 22, 2015
I enjoyed this and yes, the first season of Entourage was a bit of a reminder (though even then I didn't actually like any of the four of them and I like Spence, Jason and, whatever Rob Condry's character's name is as I figure those are the three primary characters with Ricky and...Carleton being interesting enough). I must admit I entirely watched this just so I could watch Salem without commercial breaks, but now I will probably actually watch it on purpose, not just to create the same situation when Falling Skies comes on (next week presents a challenge).
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Jun 22, 2015
Know your role and watch Ballers, jabroni!
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Jun 22, 2015
I did it for The Rock.
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Jun 22, 2015
Lol. I got a real laugh out of that.
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Jun 22, 2015
It's a bit more earnest than Entourage; not quite a dramady, but coming close to that line. Time will tell if that will payoff as the season continues. I think Cory's use of watchable was a great way to describe it.


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Jun 22, 2015
Surprisingly good
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