In my review of The Astronaut Wives Club I asked what makes a great summer series. That show wasn’t quite the answer, but Ballers is. Like Entourage, (which creator Steve Levinson also produced) as well as Fox’s Empire and BET’s The Game, it’s glossy and fun as it deals with the rich and the even-richer of Miami’s professional football community. No matter where the players end up for the season (with the Dolphins or elsewhere), Miami is the home base for partying, and the nexus of Ballers’ insular world.
Helping to run that world is Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as the charming straight-shooter Spencer Strasmore, a former linebacker turned financial planner who is making a career off of advising current players both how to manage their money and their lifestyles. The primary player who really needs his advice is Ricky Jerret (John David Washington), a talented but wayward wide receiver who keeps blowing his big chances (and whose big personality infuses the show with most of its humor). On the other end of the spectrum is a friend of Ricky’s, Charles Greane (Omar Benson Miller), a retired offensive lineman who ends up with a job as a car salesman at a local Chevy dealership, but keeps hoping for something more.
Though each man illustrates different aspects of the game (and the former game), they are all connected through Miami’s hedonistic pro athlete world. Deals are made, promises are broken, and money is always the objective. What helps ground the series, though, are references to Spencer’s history of concussions, and the physical/mental toll the brutality of the game has taken on him. And while he’s a suave guy, he’s also a hustler. He has to nab big-paycheck players to sign to the financial services company where he works (and where Rob Corddry — seeming to have the time of his life in the role — is his oddball boss), both in order to keep his job and to keep up with his own dwindling finances.
The same is true for Charles, the most genuinely affable of the main bunch. He takes the job at the dealership to bring in some money and to please his supportive wife Julie (Jazmyn Simon), but he still feels the pull of the status his former job afforded him. He also worries about his enormous weight and and whether he should consider getting back in the game. But if he goes back to that lifestyle, he could risk losing important parts of his personal life. It’s these kinds of struggles that work to give Ballers a little more depth than its flashy style first suggests.
But make no mistake, Ballers is full of Entourage-esque set dressings (including, lamentably, most of the female characters — although a few, like Arielle Kebbel’s sideline reporter Tracy, are savvy players themselves). There’s never a shortage of booze, pills, dope, strippers, or cash being passed around, however, the show mostly stays away from any action on the field. But Ballers does, through Spencer’s eyes, take another look at the cost of such a riotous existence, and manages to inject some pathos into the story of its leads. It also has a great deal of style, with scenes gorgeously augmented by and drenched in the coastal South Florida sun (Peter Berg, an executive producer, directed the first episode and incorporates some familiar Friday Night Lights-esque aesthetics).
Despite some allusions to real players, and a few cameos by them, Ballers is not as great of an industry critique as the excellent (and short-lived, thanks to the NFL’s PR hammer) 2003 ESPN series Playmakers, but it does perfectly embody the strengths of a breezy summer series with its style and very likable cast. And, it certainly will clear the air and add some levity to True Detective’s dour second season episodes, which it will follow each week. However, Ballers is a series that may be best served as a binge-watch. On their own, the episodes are fleetingly fun, but not essential. Grouping a few together, though, helps build a getaway fantasy of the Miami high life that is definitely seductive.
Rating: ★★★ Good — Proceed with cautious optimism
Ballers premieres Sunday, June 12th at 10 p.m. on HBO