[This is a review of the season 1 finale of Ballers. There will be SPOILERS.]
Before HBO’s Ballers first hit premium cable airwaves this summer, expectations weren’t necessarily high, but they were clear. With the always charismatic Dwayne Johnson in the lead role, Entourage executive producer Stephen Levinson at the helm, the beautiful beach oasis of Miami as its backdrop and the behind-the-scenes world of professional football as its subject, Ballers looked to be an insider’s sports dramedy that would be big on light-hearted laughs while possibly being light on substance. Interestingly, the series premiere proved that Ballers could be just the opposite, but as the season wore on, the HBO dramedy started to fit the predetermined mold Entourage set for it.
That’s to say, in many ways Ballers improved as it rookie season moved along. As it continued to flesh out its ensemble cast of characters, the audience found plenty of reasons to care about them and the relationships they shared. Then, of course, there were the beautiful women, hot cars and lavish Miami parties that were advertised, making the entire series ooze cool. But as the series’ first season came to a close last night, there were still a few things missing; namely, dramatic conflict and any sort of real stakes.
In its season 1 finale ‘Flamingos’, Ballers neatly closes off the season’s story and character arcs, packaging them together into one big happy resolution. We see Ricky (John David Washington) connect with his father and finally settle his beef with young teammate Alonzo (Antoine Harris); Charles (Omar Miller) solidify his NFL comeback by making the cut for the Miami Dolphins; Vernon (Donovan W. Carter) finalize his deal with the Dallas Cowboys; and Spencer (Johnson) bring Joe (Rob Corddry) back to Anderson Financial to work at its newly funded sports division. In the end, everyone got what they wanted and even gathered together at one table to celebrate, making ‘Flamingos’ feel more like a series finale than a season finale, which caused us to wonder: Was a season 2 renewal ever in doubt?
On the surface, the season’s conclusion makes it look like Levinson and company lacked confidence in the show’s continuation, but perhaps the feeling in the writer’s room was just the opposite. Maybe the creative team behind Ballers felt that the comedic chemistry the show had established was strong enough that it didn’t need a dramatic hook to lure viewers into a second season. Fortunately, the fact that Ballers was indeed renewed will make members of that creative team sleep easier, but whether they have actually generated enough interest for the audience to return with the show remains to be seen.
One thing Ballers certainly has going for it – as far as retaining that audience – is a likable lead in Johnson. Like with Vincent Chase on Entourage, his character is far from the most interesting on the show, but he is able to anchor the series’ dramatic moments and help balance the comedic ones with an affable persona, and by playing off the more outlandish characters of his castmates.
That banter and play has made the show a harmless and fun watch each week, much to the credit of the writing and the cast’s chemistry. While few would argue that Ballers has replicated the organic chemistry that was integral to Entourage‘s success, its performers certainly established a comedic rapport of their own as the season progressed. The developing friendship between the calm and collected Spencer and the volatile, hot-headed Joe certainly came across as natural and genuine. However, other characters, like rookie lineman Vernon and super-agent Jason (Troy Garity), brought almost no spark or energy to the table, existing more as devices to move the plot forward rather than interesting, well-rounded people.
Fortunately, the finale – as many episodes did – used those pieces to its advantage, positing them for well-earned laughs while keeping up a brisk, effortless pace. Some of the episode’s finer moments even allowed for a little character growth, which was most notably seen in the maturity of Ricky, who gave his old number – a sentimental symbol he fought for all season – up to make a teammate happy and benefit the organization’s morale, instead of just his own.
As a whole, the series’ light-hearted entertainment value is certainly a refreshing palate cleanser to some of HBO’s darker and heavier offerings (here’s looking at you, True Detective), but Ballers will almost assuredly run into the same problem Entourage often did: finding stories worth telling. Based on the finale’s aversion to conflict, we can’t help but worry that Ballers is already running out of story ideas, which would be a shame given that there is so much drama to mine from the real world of professional sports. Contact disputes, training camp quarrels and public image problems are one thing, but what about exploring what goes on behind the on-field cheating scandals and public relations issues that permeate today’s NFL? I guess we’ll have to see how heavy Ballers wants to get.
What did you think of Ballers season 1 and the finale? Will you be returning for season 2? Share your thoughts with us in the comments and look for Ballers season 2 on HBO in 2016.
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