HBO’s half-hour football dramedy continues to benefit from the considerable charms of star Dwayne Johnson.
Retired NFL player turned money manager Spencer Strasmore (Dwayne “formerly The Rock” Johnson) is now comfortably ensconced at Anderson Financial Management in Miami. But it’s not long into the second ten-episode season of HBO’s so-very-watchable half-hour sports dramedy Ballers that the self-created challenges arise.
First and physically foremost: a reluctant appearance on a talk show ends with Spencer and an old rival getting into fisticuffs, which aggravates a hip injury that then builds in intensity over the course of the five installments sent out for review. If you’ve watched Ballers up to this point,you’ll know that Spencer’s preferred way to medicate is to turn up the charm and chow down the painkillers. We’re talking full candy-crunching mastication, no agua. (Manly!) But there’s another pain, closer to the posterior, in the form of Andre (new cast member Andy Garcia), Spencer’s sleazy former financial adviser and now business competitor, from who our drug-addicted antihero decides, in an especially reckless moment, to poach clients.
Spencer admits it’s partly vengeance, a way of getting back at Andre for making a bunch of bad past investments with his money. But you also get the sense it’s more than a bit of alpha-male showboating—a means for the two men to do some very public displays of chest-puffing. Several of these first five episodes end with either Spencer or Andre leaning in toward the other with a you’re-MY-bitch-now! scowl, a look at which both Johnson and Garcia are practiced hands. It’s pleasurable in the way that any rush of testosterone is pleasurable. But the macho aggressiveness is pretty transparently skin-deep—which is something, one could argue, that’s perfectly suited to the series’s hedonistic Sunshine State milieu.
Really, one wouldn’t expect a show created by longtime Entourage producer Stephen Levinson to do more than wallow in superficiality and slickness. And that’s probably for the best if you take the most embarrassing scene in this batch of episodes—in which Spencer gets an illegal prescription at a strip mall clinic pimped out with “Obamacare” posters—at face value. (Rancidly retrograde social satire is a bad look.) More often, Ballers goes for the low comedy implied by its title, much of it courtesy Spencer’s sidekick Joe Krutel (the ever-energized and always quip-ready Rob Corddry) who spends a good deal of one installment chasing after a run-amok alpaca. It makes sense in context. Sort of.
But there are some genuine glimmers of human insight and deep-felt emotion amid the pigskin-tossing carnival. John David Washington continues to impress as Ricky Jerret, the pro player trying to sell his talents to the highest bidder and to wriggle out from under the thumb of his temper-prone father (Robert Ray Wisdom). And every scene involving Omar Benson Miller’s thirty-something NFL retiree Charles Greane—still dealing with the dual challenges of being a stay-at-home dad and an ex-sportsman living off former glories—walks just the right line between the comic and the tragic. Benson is also well-matched with Jazmyn Simon, radiating allure and compassion as Charles’s devoted wife Julie.
At the center of it all, of course, is Johnson, transplanting his movie-star charisma to the small screen, while proving himself a more and more adept dramatic performer. He certainly looks fantastic in every extravagantly tailored suit, and needs to do little more than lope confidently around a pool of scantily-clad beauties to command a scene. But he’s as committed to etching in his character’s darker, disquieted side, and like the best big-name talents, he needs very little to do it. There’s a wonderful sequence in episode two in which Spencer comforts his girlfriend, sports reporter Tracy Legette (Arielle Kebbel), after she tells off her sexist boss and quits her job. At first he acts protective, joking that he’ll beat the guy up. Then he gets supportive, apologizing in that way that so many men do when talking about the transgressions of their own gender. “It’s not your fault,” Tracy says semi-defensively, before delivering the knife-to-the-guts: “But you guys really suck sometimes.”
“Yeah…” Spencer says resignedly. “We do.”
Creator: Stephen Levinson
Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Rob Corddry, John David Washington, Omar Benson Miller, Donovan Carter, Troy Garity, Jazmyn Simon, London Brown, Arielle Kebbel, Dulé Hill, Richard Schiff, Andy Garcia
Executive Producers: Stephen Levinson, Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Dany Garcia, Peter Berg, Evan Reilly, Rob Weiss, Julian Farino, Denis Biggs
Premieres: Sunday, July 17th, 10 p.m. (HBO)