[This is a review of the season 2 premiere of Ballers. There will be SPOILERS.]
Last summer, HBO introduced its subscribers to Ballers, a lightweight, middling dramedy that was just charming, interesting, and entertaining enough to make up for a lack of laugh-out-loud moments and thoughtful insight into the world of professional sports. That's all to say, Ballers was average in just about every way through its rookie season, but coming into its second run, there was a sense that the series needed to step up its game in order to retain viewer interest en route to a potential season 3.
With a consistent and surprisingly nuanced lead performance from Dwayne Johnson, some fun supporting characters and the luxurious allure of Miami as its setting, Ballers already had plenty of attractive features. However, there was one very noticeable and important element missing at the conclusion of season 1: conflict. Instead of baiting viewers with some enticing drama, the show decided to end its first season with a happily-ever-after vibe that caused us to wonder if there were even plans for a season 2. Fortunately, Ballers knew better than to carry the same hunky-doryness into its season 2 premiere, 'Face of the Franchise,' and instead introduced a whole slew of conflicts for its main players, which, in turn, established some interesting narrative arcs for the season's remaining nine episodes.
While the most notable of those arcs certainly revolves around Spencer (Johnson), Ricky (John David Washington), and Charles (Omar Miller) also encounter some potentially career-altering roadblocks, which ensure drama will ensue around their characters. For Ricky, there's the disappointment and downright humiliation of being lowballed and then ultimately passed over by the Dolphins in favor of his old rival Alonzo (Antoine Harris); and for Charles, a cloud of uncertainty about his playing days appears when he hears that "changes" regarding his role on the team are coming. Here, the series does a good job of building up some mystery with these dramatic teases, as both men's futures in football remain unclear.
The season's biggest conflict is introduced in the form of series newcomer Andy Garcia, playing Spencer's adversary and former advisor Andre. On a surface level, the introduction of a rival and business competitor is not all that novel or intriguing. It's actually a pretty obvious move for the show to make as an easy means to generate the conflict it desperately needs to begin season 2. But beneath that surface, there's a far more interesting internal conflict Spencer is wrestling with (even as he's literally wrestling with Baltimore Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs). Here, the series gives us some valuable insight into its lead character, as we see that Spencer's inner warrior just can't let things go. Even though he's long since retired, his nature as a competitor and his pride keep the grudges from his football career alive.
Obviously, there is still more backstory to explain the bad blood between Andre and Spencer that the season will likely slowly reveal, but so far, the most compelling aspect of their rivalry is the notion that Spencer's real problems might be with himself. Throughout the season 2 premiere, he's given chances to get out of his own way, but in the end, chooses to go war at just the slightest goading from his enemy. While we certainly can't expect Ballers to turn its likeable lead into a villain, here's hoping it will explore Spencer's flaws and his relationships with a little complexity.
And for a dramedy that seemed to favor drama slightly over comedy in its first season, calling for a little more depth -- especially when it comes to its main character -- seems reasonable. As audiences have seen in his recent movie roles -- and even at times in Ballers -- Johnson is certainly capable.
Besides Spencer's internal struggle, much of the premiere's conflict feels forced, but that's only because it was necessary in establishing interesting storylines for the show's second season. Considering it doesn't always deliver comedically, Ballers needed to establish a firm direction for the series to go, and it did just that while leaving room for some mystery as well. In the scope of television's current vast landscape, the show still has the look and feel of a mediocre performer, but it has succeeded in its season 2 premiere by injecting some energy and a renewed sense of direction.
Ballers season 2 continues next Sunday with 'Enter the Temple' @10pm on HBO.