[This is a review for the series premiere of Ballers. There will be SPOILERS.]
When HBO first announced Ballers - a series set behind the scenes of the professional sports world - many instantly drew comparisons to Entourage, and rightfully so. On its face (and based on its marketing), not only is Ballers yet another male-driven dramedy offering a peek behind the curtain of the glamorous life (this time in Miami), but it's also created by Entourage producer Stephen Levinson. However, after seeing Ballers' series premiere, viewers will find that's about where the similarities between the shows end, as Ballers ends up scoring more points with dramatic storytelling than with a unique comedic sensibility.
This one-sided approach to the dramedy formula is made quite clear right from the get-go, as Ballers opens on its central character Spencer Strasmore (Dwayne Johnson), a retired pro football player who starts his day by chomping on a few pain killers instead of a multivitamin. Then, just a couple of scenes later, true tragedy strikes when one of Spencer's former teammates is killed in a car wreck after getting in a fight with his mistress. While this introduction lets us know that life after football isn't all fun and games, it certainly doesn't leave room for any lighthearted laughs.
Fortunately, while the premiere is basically devoid of any real comedy, Johnson is as charming and likable as ever as the show's lead, a seemingly egoless former Super Bowl champion who now prides himself on lending his experience and wisdom to current players as a financial advisor. Johnson doesn't get any major splashy scenes to show off as a performer, but he is able to shoulder the dramatic heft of the premiere as its centerpiece, while also bringing authenticity to the role as a former defensive lineman with the University of Miami.
Calm, cool, and collected (despite facing his own financial struggles), Johnson's character also serves as a solid foundation to build the more dramatically-interesting characters of Ballers' world around. In the show's fast-paced premiere, they include: a rookie client (Donovan W. Carter) who suddenly attracts more friends and family members than he can financially support; a veteran trouble-making wide-receiver (John David Washington) whose hot-headed ways turn him into a free agent and PR disaster; Spencer's greedy boss Joe (Rob Corddry), who sees athletes as dollar signs as opposed to human beings; and a borderline depressed ex-lineman (Omar Benson Miller) trying to transition to a new career without any real world experience.
Like Entourage before it, Ballers does a great job of grounding its characters and storylines in a reality that the audience can believe. These are issues and problems that real athletes face, and we don't have to necessarily share their experience to understand them. This strength gives the show the ability to attract viewers who don't follow professional sports, along with those who are already interested in the off-field and post-career lives of professional athletes.
However, a problem that the series could end up dealing with is the audience's expectation of a comedic take on this world of high-profile contract negotiations, off-the-field issues and flashy material wealth. Those looking for the same type of snappy, witty dialogue and fun banter that Entourage employed for eight seasons will be sorely disappointed. Unfortunately, despite what impression you may have gathered from the show's promotional materials, the laughs just aren't there, at least not yet. As of the premiere, Ballers is tackling its subject matter very seriously.
Of course, the premiere's noticeable lack of humor doesn't mean the entire series will be a straight-faced affair either. Considering how many characters and subplots the extremely busy premiere was tasked with establishing in its scant 30 minutes, it would be understandable that some jokes were cut out.
More importantly, from a dramatic standpoint, the series - as a whole - offers a chance to ruminate on several bigger-picture topics that don't always get covered in Sunday morning pregame shows, including the financial challenges athletes face after retirement, the short shelf-life of many young NFL stars, and the perilous pitfalls that come with the baller lifestyle. For many, this aspect of the series - already touched on with the storylines in the premiere - will be its biggest draw.
Ballers continues next Sunday with 'Raise Up' @10pm on HBO.