The fact that Ballers is essentially an ensemble hasn’t worked to the show’s advantage so far. Part of that is because the show doesn’t have a deep enough roster to warrant so many separate storylines. The larger issue though is that with all of these characters floating around, Ballers has no time to focus on an overarching narrative, or at least a central idea that drives the plot each and every week. Through its first few episodes, this was a show about Spencer needing to secure clients to sustain his future after football. On a broader scale, it was about how all of these guys, from ex-players like Charles to current stars like Vernon and Ricky, have to think about who they are on and off the field.
As the season has gone on though, the focus has shifted numerous times, resulting in a narrative that feels scattered and disjointed. One week Ricky is trying to adjust to his new team, the next he’s dealing with TMZ. One week Vernon is negotiating his new contract and dealing with a sidekick who may not have his best interests in mind, and the next week he’s being blackmailed by a woman who has pictures of him smoking weed with hookers. These are storylines that should be significant, at least to the characters, but they’re being quickly tossed away week in and week out. It means that more often than not Ballers feels like some sort of strange comedy procedural, where each week is spent focusing on the next set of high jinks these NFLers will get themselves into.
That kind of scattered storytelling leaves Ballers without a central premise, without a driving force behind its narrative. That would be fine if the jokes worked better, but Ballers has shown it isn’t exactly a laugh-out-loud comedy. It’s balancing drama and comedy, but to do so you need that drama to stick, to feel meaningful. “Everything Is Everything,” coming more than halfway through the season, finally starts to find something meaningful to latch onto in the form of Spencer’s health issues and Ricky’s career moves and personal history.
I mentioned above that the show’s ensemble never really clicks, and that’s certainly evident in tonight’s episode. The storyline that sees Charles hit up Ricky’s “fun house” for some “selfish, immature” behavior–which just means smoking weed and dancing in the foam room–is the kind of thing the show has already done with its party boat. The fact that it’s the more reserved Charles letting loose doesn’t make his scenes any more interesting or fresh. Instead, he’s back to his wife by episode’s end, and while he may have learned a lesson about how understanding and rock solid his wife is, the storyline does little in terms of moving the narrative forward. The “reserved man has one day/night of partying” is well-trodden territory, and it’s a shame to see the intriguing dynamic and marriage that Charles and Julie wasted on such a stale bit of supposed comedy.
Even less interesting is the continuing saga of Vernon being blackmailed. The storyline is hitting the same beats in every single episode. Reggie doesn’t like Spencer. Spencer doesn’t trust Reggie. Vernon just wants everyone to get along and to get a paycheck for himself. Joe likes making jokes about drugs. It’s tiresome to watch Dwayne Johnson and Rob Corddry work to carry these scenes each week, their dedication to creating genuine chemistry between their characters lost in this black hole of narrative tension.
Still, as I mentioned, “Everything Is Everything” finds some solid ground by focusing on Spencer and Ricky. It’s a smart move purely for the fact that Johnson and Washington are the two best performers on the show, the two guys who seem to understand how the balance of comedy and drama works on Ballers. Washington gets to ham it up when he suddenly realizes what’s at stake in going on TV to “be real” and talk about who the real Ricky is. He does everything he can to keep Spencer from dragging him into his interview with Jay Glazer, and his manic acting is hilarious. Washington has his father’s charisma and uses it for comedy, and it’s a blast to watch. What’s more impressive is how quickly he turns that into drama, telling Spencer that if he goes out there and gets slammed by Glazer, his career could be over. Then who will he be? How will Ricky Jerret define himself?
It’s moving stuff, and it’s accentuated by the fact that Spencer understands that situation. He’s put off his MRI for far too long, even when Tracy has expressed concern. He finally reschedules though and tells Tracy why he’s been hesitant to do so. He’s scared of what the doctors will find. He’s worried that the headaches, nightmares, and occasional outbursts might mean he’s got something wrong in his head, and to have that confirmed would be horrible. The moment is played for a bit of a laugh when Tracy’s phone drops the call, but it’s still a humanizing moment for Spencer. He’s a man with fears and insecurities, and it’s that kind of vulnerability that these characters could use in order to make the drama side of Ballers hit home more often.
Ricky gets that same moment. He goes on TV and tells Glazer that the reason he tried to buy the #18 from Alonso is because of his father. His father played pro football and wore #81. He also walked out on him and his mom when he was young. Ricky never wants to be that man, never wants to step on the field without, in his words, wearing a “fuck you” to his dad on his front and back. He wears the numbers reversed because he’s the opposite of his father. Again, it’s a human moment, and “Everything Is Everything” is better off because of it.
- When Spencer shouted “it doesn’t matter” to Ricky during his freakout, my brain went into pure nostalgia mode and I seriously popped for it.
- According to Ricky, the Harry Potter series is underrated.
- Another downside of this ensemble: Annabella leaving Ricky doesn’t feel important at all. I mean, what have we even seen of her in this season?
- Spencer looking inside the MRI machine: “I’m not gonna fit in this thing.” You know what? He might be right.
- Can we get more scenes with Dulé Hill please?