Dwayne Johnson, Rob Corddry

Ballers has a lot of problems, but its most damaging one is that the show wants it both ways. Billed as a comedy drama about the physical, personal, and financial challenges facing young professional football players, it traffics pretty heavily in selling how great it is to be a rich, young professional football player, where all those problems evaporate in a blur of cash, booze, and Lamborghinis—and other people cleaning up your messes. It’s luxury porn in the guise of a cautionary tale, with each of the three player protagonists parceled out one season-long but easily resolved problem apiece. John David Washington’s Ricky Jerret is the hotheaded, womanizing spendthrift who has to grow up. Donovan Carter’s Vernon Littlefield is the young superstar who can’t cut loose everyone in his old life who has a hand out (he also gets caught doing coke off some tits). And Omar Benson Miller’s Charles Greane is the recently retired lineman who can’t adjust and wants to get back into the game.

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The series has moved so facilely over these stories that it’s only the actors who manage to squeeze a little humanity into the characters’ dilemmas. Washington’s been the standout, lending the volatile Ricky a live-wire comic energy (as in his camel-riding arrival at Dolphins training camp tonight), alongside enough touches of soulfulness to make Ricky’s self-created problems relatable. Miller is just as good in a quieter role, his lumbering nice guy Charles thoroughly likable and sympathetic, even when the script saddles him with dull temptation plots and stale slapstick. (I can’t imagine anyone not cheering when he knocks a mocking asshole lineman on his ass in his first day back on the field tonight.) Carter’s not much of an actor in comparison, but he brings an earnest vulnerability to Vernon’s boyish desire not to let anyone down. (His scenes with surrogate big brother Dwayne Johnson’s Spencer are especially affecting.)

What makes Ballers work to the extent that it does, naturally, is Dwayne Johnson, who, as star player-turned financial manager Spencer Strathmore, strolls so confidently through the series that his clients’ straw man problems take on more weight than they appear capable of bearing. Without Johnson at its center, Ballers would simply dissipate like the shallow fluff it is. With Johnson, the show is—intermittently and improbably— substantial. Through the series, Spencer is called upon to deliver a lot of speeches—usually one an episode—lecturing Ricky, Charles, and Vernon (and Rob Corddry’s fellow financial manager Joe, and various others) about what they should do. As a former player who’s been through—conveniently—every problem they’re facing, Spencer’s advice could come off as dull and predictable. In Johnson’s hands, it’s immediate and, at times, riveting. Johnson, anchoring a series for the first time, is the real deal. Much is made of the guy’s charisma, and he does have that, by the wheelbarrow-full. But he’s also a damned fine actor. Facing off with dramatic heavyweight Richard Schiff tonight (as ever, bristly and funny as the management firm’s imperious boss), the erstwhile Rock matches the Emmy winner all the way. Ballers isn’t Emmy bait in any sense, but Johnson’s performance in carrying the show is a not inconsiderable achievement.

In the end, though, “Flamingos” plies the same sort of facile storytelling and consequence-less drama it has from the start. (Remember Spencer’s anguish about ending another player’s career and his fears about neurological damage? Neither does Ballers.) Vernon’s fled before signing his time-sensitive contract with the Cowboys? No problem—Spencer and Troy Garity’s Jason track him down at the zoo (because he always goes there to photograph the flamingos), tell him the Cowboys have offered him $5 million more than their last offer, and the three hug it out. Charles thought his dream was dead? One phone call from Dulé Hill’s Dolphins exec later, and he’s back in pads, knocking a fool out. (He does have the decency to nervously barf in the parking lot beforehand.) Ricky’s cocky dad (The Wire’s Robert Wisdom) shows up—untrustworthy toothpick in mouth—to give Ricky a hard time for badmouthing his absentee fathering on television? Ricky lets go of his anger, gives away his symbolic number 18, and regains his swagger in time for training camp. (No sign of fed-up girlfriend Annabella, however.) Joe trashes his office after being fired and goes on a bender after Spencer rejects his offer to start a new firm? Spencer finds him at the bar, tells him Schiff’s Anderson says he can come back, and that they now head Anderson Financial’s new $5 million sports division (plus they get a new speedboat). When the episode ends with a celebratory dinner for Vernon and family (complete with fried Oreos and an $18 million signing bonus check), instinct suggests that Ballers will end on some sort of cliffhanger, or at least a slight hiccup going into its next season. But nope—even Spencer and Vernon’s perpetually loudmouthed pal/advisor Reggie hug it out, all their rancor forgotten in the glow of money and prime rib.

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Ballers, for all its stated pretensions toward showing the perils facing the modern athlete, is insubstantial stuff, buoyed by good actors and hoisted atop Johnson’s sturdy shoulders. Going forward, even the ever-diplomatic Johnson has said there’s room for improvement, and he’s as right as Spencer invariably is. The show’s storytelling instincts are glib and, at time, perplexing. (No offense to the capable Garity, but Jason’s subplot about his mom dating a young golfer was easily the most forgettable thing I’ve seen on TV all year.) Its treatment of women is frequently appalling—the infrequent instances when a female character has something of substance to say (Jazmyn Simon’s Julie Greane and Arielle Kebbel’s reporter Tracy, mainly), they function like the one nice “ethnic” character in a Death Wish movie, on hand to show that, despite him blowing away primarily people of color every five minutes, Charles Bronson’s vigilante isn’t really racist. That might serve as commentary on how women are treated in the professional sports community if Ballers didn’t deploy female flesh as just another perk of the life, and if the women weren’t overwhelmingly gold diggers and/or nameless sex accessories. (Tonight, it’s only Johnson’s ass we see, however, as he and Tracy celebrate Spencer’s promotion with some desk sex.)

But there are enough pieces here to fashion a better show in season two—if the creators want one. There’s been a lot of talk about the similarly-themed but ratings-challenged Survivor’s Remorse (about a young basketball player dealing with these same issues upon reaching the pros) being a more nuanced and substantial take on the lives of pro athletes. But Ballers is selling the fantasy—and making baller-style money doing it—which doesn’t bode especially well for those of us hoping for a better showcase for the deserving Johnson.

Stray observations

  • Not that their banter is especially well-written, but Johnson and Corddry continue to make an outstanding comedy team.
  • “First I’m unfired, now I’m being re-gifted?”
  • Johnson bringing me Cuban coffee and flan after a bad day would cheer me up, too.
  • Sadly, there does not appear to be an actual baby carriage called “The Wombat.”
  • Seeing DulĂ© Hill and Omar Benson Miller together all season has given me warm memories of Charlie and Orlando Kettles, the guy with the open Pabst.
  • Thanks to Kyle Fowle, who let me fill in on the season finale of Ballers. He’s taking on Johnson’s old stomping, People’s Elbowing ground tonight.

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