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There’s something in the eyes of most professional wrestlers. It’s a battle-hardened and aggressive tint that quietly nods to late night parties, early morning back pain and years on the grind. It’s the one battle scar no one can cover up, except, for some reason, Dwayne The Rock Johnson doesn’t have those eyes. He’s been through the wars. He’s definitely got that back pain, but yet, his eyes have a youthful hope to them, like he truly sees the best in people and the world. It’s one of the reasons why his likeability scores must be off the charts, and it’s the primary reason why he’s the perfect lead in Ballers.
Johnson plays lead Spencer Strasmore as an optimistic man who wants to see the best in people. As a wannabe money manager following his retirement from professional football, he doesn’t want to monetize his friendships if it’ll make him look like a jerk. He doesn’t want to look at all social events as networking opportunities. Slowly but surely, however, he begins to realize it’s in both his own and the potential client’s best interest for him to count the pennies. Childhood friends from Crenshaw aren’t necessarily the best at handling multi-million dollar empires, and someone needs to tell these players dropping three hundred grand for elevators and/ or letting dozens of borderline strangers eat from their fridge every day isn’t a great idea.
Ballers is a half hour dramedy, which is a really important creative decision. Choosing the world of professional football as a landscape could potentially push a program in a lot of different directions. It could be a morose hour long drama about the brutal aftereffects/ health problems of a long career. It could be a goofy half hour comedy about VIP sections and old war stories, complete with Entourage-style cameos. Instead, it’s a little bit of both. Ballers doesn’t shy away from the physical problems. We see Strasmore popping pills quite a bit in the pilot. We’re also shown really slutty bathroom sex and some shots of former football greats. It’s a hybrd that often seems to be fighting against itself, but in a weird way, that’s perfect for this world.
The truth is professional sports is often a mixed bag of extreme dedication and almost shocking unprofessionalism. It’s a world of selfishness and self-sacrifice. Ballers does its best to bounce back and forth and show it all. Early on, the balance feels a little uncomfortable. The tone feels like it’s searching a bit, but by the end of the first episode, it all feels a lot more natural thanks to supporting characters like former player Charles Greane (Omar Benson Miller), current player Ricky Jerret (John David Washington) and financial analyst Joe (Rob Corddry) really developing as effective counterpoints and differing personalities to bounce against Strasmore.
The pilot isn’t perfect, but it shows more than enough promise to make it a worthwhile investment.
Ballers airs on Sunday nights on HBO.