Even The Rock Can’t Save HBO’s ‘Ballers’

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It makes perfect sense that Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is starring in a sports comedy from HBO. It’s a natural progression for the action star who has proven, time and time again, that he is a talented actor with a preternatural knack for nailing every line he’s given (a skill wrestlers hone in the ring, due to the ridiculous promos they have to deliver with total seriousness). A sports comedy is right up his alley — he easily embodies the character of Spencer, a retired football player (like Johnson) currently working as a financial manager for athletes. It gives Johnson room to have a little more fun on screen and to show off his comedic timing. The problem is that the series, not Johnson, is incredibly disappointing.

At the risk of stating the obvious: Ballers is basically the sports version of Entourage — creator Steve Levinson even served as a producer on Entourage — so much so that it almost reads as a spin-off. Spencer and his boss Joe (Rob Corddry) both have shades of Ari Gold in their characters, though the gay jokes have “evolved” from the unfunny, homophobic variety to the still unfunny but overcompensating, “I’m OK with my sexuality, so I can joke about gay things!” variety. “Would you mind if I took you in my mouth?” Joe asks Spencer in lieu of congratulating him on landing a big account. Ballers likes these jokes because it’s clear that the males are straight — and not just straight but overwhelmingly straight, knee-deep in scantily clad women who populate the series but mostly remain nameless.

Ballers begins with a mistress riding shotgun with her football player boyfriend, saying she’d do anything for him “including kill myself” — getting that “crazy woman” stereotype established within the first three minutes is impressive. Her anger over his failure to leave his wife results in a deadly car crash. At the funeral, a woman in the front row crosses and uncrosses her legs, showing off her underwear and signaling to Spencer (who is currently eulogizing the dead) that she wants him bad. Women drift in and out of Ballers, sometimes as nagging wives, but mostly as anonymous slutty temptresses. They tempt athletes with lines of cocaine at fancy parties; one tempts a man who’s known to be married with a racy phone call, informing him that he’s her vibrator’s namesake.

As for the plot (“plot”), Spencer mostly just goes around trying to sign athletes or halfheartedly convince them not to throw around their money like he did (lesson!). He keeps trying to prove that he’s more than just a “jock in a tailored suit,” since Joe only hired Spencer because Joe’s the sort of guy who wants to feel cool and accepted by athletes. This desire — and this delusion about being one of the jocks — leads to behavior that’s embarrassing (for both Joe and the show’s writers), such as dropping the N-bomb on a crowded boat, to the dismay of the many black partygoers. Humor! Spencer also has some money issues, and maybe some neurological issues from his football-playing days, but both are thrown on the back-burner in favor of partying and cameos. (I’m sure Ballers will be slightly more appealing to football fans, who will dig seeing popular players pop up every now and then; I’m unable to identify any of them unless they’ve already appeared on The League.)

When the show drifts away from the boozy dinners, expensive cars, and coke parties on yachts, there’s a hint of some OK plots buzzing about, most notably the one surrounding Charles Greane (Omar Benson Miller), a former football player who is trying to figure out his next step in life and lands a decidedly unspectacular job at a car dealership. For a bit, it’s almost a good story: a man who is seemingly only built for one thing struggling to find something else that he’s good at, and that he finds fulfilling. But then Charles goes to a boat party and flirts with the idea of cheating on his wife, and we get back to square one.

Unsurprisingly, the only part of the show worth watching is Dwayne Johnson himself. He never turns off his charm, whether he’s dealing with his girlfriend, his client, or his doctor. He’s the only actor capable of pulling off the clunky dialogue (even Corddry runs into trouble with the comedy because it’s just not funny), and his line delivery gave me my only laugh of the first four episodes — too bad it was the result of a poor plot about a guy sleeping with his teammate’s mother. But Johnson is too good for Ballers. HBO should be, too, but I guess the network is the only one that still feels nostalgic for Entourage.