[This is a review of the season 3 premiere of Ballers. There will be SPOILERS.]
Serving mostly as a middling and mildly entertaining dramedy for HBO over the course of its first two seasons, Ballers has managed to truly impress and surprise on occasion. Perhaps one of the more memorable and profound examples came at the end of season 2, where Spencer (Dwyane Johnson) displayed some real character growth by swallowing his pride and admitting his mistakes, giving him a chance to rebuild his friendships, business and career. It’s moments like these that remind viewers that the series has the potential to be much more than a glitzy and glossy behind-the-scenes look at the glamorous life of the world’s biggest professional athletes.
As season 3 of the sports show kicks off with the premiere ‘Seeds of Expansion’, we’re also reminded just how much of a one-man show Ballers has actually become. Originally, the idea may have been to shed light on many different stories and issues in the realm of pro sports, but it’s becoming more and more clear with each episode that the only story really worth spending time on is that of its central character, Spencer Strasmore.
And that’s not to denigrate or diminish any other members of the ensemble cast. In fact, many — including Rob Corddry and John David Washington — do a fine job at lending some of the comedy necessary to balance this often drama-heavy dramedy. However, Johnson’s nuanced and sympathetic performance as the charismatic but also flawed former NFL star is undoubtedly still the main attraction here.
So, it’s certainly fitting that the character Johnson plays (emboldened and empowered by his partner Joe) realizes he is the real asset to the company when coming into an important business meeting with Las Vegas casino magnate Wayne Hastings Jr. (Steve Guttenberg). And it turns out that he and Joe are right not to worry about losing NBA MVP Stephen Curry (who appears in a cameo role) for said meeting. Even without the wow-factor of Curry, Spencer is still able to impresses the hard-to-impress Hastings with a heartfelt speech about gratitude and a bright idea: What about moving an NFL team to Vegas?
Less of an actual proposal and more of a what-if scenario (even though such a scenario is very real), the question provides an interesting direction for the series to go in for season 3. On that glossy surface level, a change in locale to Las Vegas could certainly be attractive for the show, but from character and story standpoints, it could also present Spencer and his boys with temptations that are simply too powerful to ignore, which will certainly stir up some drama.
Of course, such a move also bears the potential for the series to resort to the type of storytelling and style we see more in music videos than an HBO series. And it’s certainly possible the drama stirred up by having the characters in Las Vegas could resemble what’s seen on trashy reality television or on daytime soap operas. However, with Johnson’s layered and well-rounded character at the center, one would hope the show wouldn’t veer too far in that direction, and remain focused on his growth as a person in the midst of any debauchery that may take place.
While the premiere itself didn’t create a lot of tension or drama for the upcoming season, it did introduce a storyline that has us hopeful that the series will continue down the more mature track it settled on in season 2. After unashamedly putting his insecurities and vulnerabilities on the table last season, Spencer is seen concerned about infertility in tonight’s premiere. Not only that, but he begins to seriously think about the potential of fatherhood and his future, making this upcoming Vegas move all the more worrisome for an audience that cares about Spencer’s well-being.
However, besides Spencer’s continued growth as a character, this premiere didn’t give viewers much else to chew on, which just reinforces the idea that Ballers has indeed become less of an ensemble piece and more of a showcase for Johnson’s talents as a performer. Tonight we saw an ill-prepared Charles (Omar Benson Miller) get embarrassed at a Miami Dolphins press conference, Vernon (Donovan W. Carter) accept a risky endorsement deal and Ricky (John David Washington) learn that he is about to become a father — the latter of which may have created more interest had Ricky’s character arc ever carried any real emotional weight for the show. As far as we’re concerned, Spencer’s personal journey is still the biggest reason to be watching Ballers at this point.
That said, Ballers continues to prove that Johnson’s star power is enough to keep a series relevant. Sure, the show may not be groundbreaking in any way, but Johnson’s presence makes it worth the modest time investment each week — and there’s no doubt we’ll continue to tune in to see where Spencer Strasmore and his business go from here.
Ballers season 3 continues with ‘Bull Rush’ next Sunday @10pm on HBO.
Photos: Jeff Daly/HBO
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