This article contains information that could be considered too revealing according to our spoiler policy. Proceed with caution. You can't unsee it!Reason The show premieres a few days after the publication of this post; we got a screener.
Should You Roll With Ballers?
The Rock plays a financial manager for pro athletes. Is it worth your investment?
What Is This Thing?
Recently retired football star Spencer Strasmore has traded jerseys for custom-made suits as he begins a new career as a financial manager in sunny Miami. But his new job isn't easy: this new crop of players must have come from Knucklehead University.
When Is It On?
Sundays at 10 PM on HBO, starting June 21.
Why Was It Made Now?
Spencer is played by Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, and if The Rock says yes to your show, then you're legally obligated to accept. He's Hollywood's King Midas, turning movies into gold with the sheer force of his charisma. His last two movies, Furious 7 and San Andreas, have earned more than a billion dollars: a performer's membership in The Three Comma Club gets a producer's attention.
What's Its Pedigree?
Stephen Levinson, who has been an executive producer on Boardwalk Empire, In Treatment, and Entourage, created the show. Levinson also works as Mark Wahlberg's manager, and Wahlberg's an executive producer here as well, along with Peter Berg, who brought us the TV version of Friday Night Lights. Berg also directed the pilot episode and shows up briefly in it, as a coach.
The Rock is the biggest name in the cast, but second-banana extraordinaire Rob Corddry (Childrens Hospital, Hot Tub Time Machine) is on board as his boss at the financial management firm. Lesser-known names fill out the rest of the roles -- Denzel Washington's son, John David Washington, plays volatile wide receiver Ricky, and Omar Miller (CSI: Miami) is a former lineman turned car salesman -- while current NFL players like Victor Cruz make the occasional cameo.
Everything is better with The Rock in it. At this point, he's evolved into an efficient machine that takes in a superhuman amount of cod and converts it into an endless supply of charm. It's says a lot about HBO's current reputation that that one of the most bankable action movie stars in world would take time to film an ongoing series. It's as if Arnold Schwarzenegger had signed up for Arli$$.
In addition, the show looks terrific. The Miami of Ballers features all the standards from the art director playbook: long-legged models, sleek luxury cars, Rick Ross. It's basically a recruiting video for South Beach.
I'll start by saying that no one loves The Rock more than I do. When I heard about this show, I changed my password to "Baller$." So it hurts to admit that The Rock's appeal isn't enough to overcome the show's Entourage legacy of babes, booze, and bros. It seems impossible, I know -- like watching The Rock lose a wrestling match to Shia LeBeouf.
Ladies, in particular, have it rough here from the very beginning. The first woman you see is naked. The next is a vengeful mistress who starts a tragic fight with the driver of the car she's riding in when she discovers he won't leave his wife. Then at the ensuing funeral, another classy gal in the front row flashes her panties at Spencer while he's delivering the eulogy. That's in the first five minutes.
We learn that Spencer has been in the money-manager game for about a year, but he must have missed a few introductory classes. As he hits the club with the boys on the night of the funeral, he hands out some free advice on depreciating assets -- "If it drives, flies, floats, or fucks, lease it" -- which is just wrong on so many levels.
Somehow, despite his deficits, Spencer has managed to get a couple of clients. First is Ricky, a talented wide receiver with a James Harden-style beard and a knack for screwing up off the field. After boning a stranger in a nightclub bathroom, he gets in a fight with an annoying guy at the club. The fight footage hits YouTube, and Ricky is quickly cut from his team.
Spencer is also out to sign Vernon, a defensive tackle on the verge of stardom who comes with the Freeloader Posse. Despite signing a big contract, Vernon is already short on cash, so Spencer gives him $300,000 with the understanding that he'll become Vernon's financial adviser.
Vernon's current money man and childhood friend, Reggie, becomes Spencer's nemesis over the first few episodes. But beyond the basic conflict that Spencer is trying to take Reggie's role (even one that he's done a terrible job with), their beef feels like a sibling rivalry between the coolest guy in town and his annoying little brother.
Part of the problem is that none of the actors, except Corddry, has the screen presence to go toe-to-toe with The Rock, even when he's playing things at low volume: he's a financial manager, not the Scorpion King. As Ricky, Washington's biggest asset is that his voice carries that same sonorous quality as his father's. One quick way to make a scene with Ricky more enjoyable is to close your eyes and imagine a young Denzel. Vernon is played by a first-time actor and former college football player Donovan Carter, and the show takes care not to put too much pressure on Carter to carry a scene.
But London Brown, as Reggie, fares the worst. It isn't necessarily his fault, but the show sets him up as Spencer's foil, even though it's a mismatch from the beginning. Brown is a regular-size human, so he doesn't match up to The Rock physically, and he doesn't bring any menace or savvy to make up for the size difference. When their argument gets physical, the result is less dramatic than when The Rock won a lip-sync battle.
Even with The Rock's presence, the degree to which you'll like Ballers ultimately is directly proportional to how much you liked Entourage. If the fantasy world of big money, hot women, celebrities, booze, drugs -- living The Life with your bros -- sounds good to you, then you'll smell what The Rock is cookin'. But if you'd prefer a show in which you could recall the name of a single female character after four episodes, then you'll want to drop The People's Elbow on Ballers.