“Machete Charge” is Ballers at its worst. It’s indicative of the issues that have pervaded much of this first season. Here though, those issues aren’t just scattered (relatively) harmlessly throughout the episode; they make up every part of the narrative.

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While “Machete Charge” boasts a lot of issues in terms of the objectification of women and just a general sense of narrative sloppiness, including contrived writing, one of its biggest problems is its lack of narrative structure. I’ve mentioned before that Ballers has been striking a precarious balance between being a drama and a comedy, and for the first time all season, that balancing act results in disaster. “Machete Charge” has an interesting concept at its core. It’s an episode that takes a broad look at how athletes can potentially ruin their careers. More specifically, it muses on how football is all these guys have, how it’s their whole identity. While it’s not exactly easy to create sympathy for multi-millionaires, there’s something to be said for the immense pressure that many athletes face on a daily basis. Most of them have been bred for their particular sport since childhood, and it’s all they know.

The thought of that being taken away should lend a sense of gravitas to Ballers, but the show instead chooses to play such scenarios for laughs–that is, when it actually manages to land a joke. The problem isn’t even that Ballers feels empty in terms of comedy, but rather that it’s structured as if it’s a serious drama. The narrative is unraveling at a snail’s pace, which would be great if the show had anything of substance to say beyond “athletes do dumb things sometimes.” Consider the fact that this episode ends with a cliffhanger of sorts, with Spencer admitting that he knows the woman who’s blackmailing Vernon with pictures of him smoking weed with hookers. Such a plotline would be resolved, at least in part, by episode’s end on just about any half-hour comedy. Because Ballers purports to be more serious than that though, dabbling in issues that feel relevant in terms of sports culture in 2015, it drags the storyline out. Do we really need another week of Vernon feeling threatened by this woman? Do we really need another storyline that paints women as gold-digging whores? I don’t think we do.

Within the world of Ballers, just about every woman is an accessory until she’s a problem. They’re flesh and saliva until their money-hungry bitches. There’s Ms. Lee, who’s blackmailing Vernon, but there’s also the woman who Charles just can’t seem to shake. He doesn’t want to cheat on his wife, but he’s definitely thinking about it. He actually pictures her while having sex with his wife, pushing her head into the mattress when she starts talking to him and ruining his fantasy. What’s frustrating about the scene–or at least one thing that’s frustrating about it–is that it’s not meant to indict Charles, to lambast him for taking the wife who’s stood by him through a rocky retirement for granted. Instead, the scene thinks Charles’ dismissal of his wife during sex is hilarious. We’re meant to laugh at how he can’t get this other woman out of his head, to relate to Charles’ motivations as a man. It’s gross, offensive stuff, and by far the lowest Ballers has sunk this season.

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It’s a shame, because Julie is one of the few fleshed-out characters on this show. Through nothing but a bit of dialogue in each episode we understand her situation. She needs to be the wife who understands her man’s insecurity after retiring from pro football while at the same time motivating him to move beyond that life. She’s a complex character played with wonderful depth by Jazmyn Simon, and here she is getting her head pushed down. Sure, she gets a brief victory when she confronts Charles about the picture she finds, but it’s not much in the larger scheme of things. There’s still hope that Ballers has more of that, and that Charles will get his comeuppance, but for now the show is satisfied with consistently making sure women are fodder for cheap, sexist jokes.

The continuing saga of Ricky and Alonzo isn’t nearly as offensive, despite their interactions largely taking place inside a strip club, but it’s still a stagnant storyline. Ricky’s hoping to bury the hatchet with his teammate so, naturally, he takes him out for a few lap dances. Alonzo, who’s never satisfied, brings along his brother(s) to spend as much of Ricky’s money as possible. The introduction of the “whole family” is a great visual gag, but that’s where most of the fun ends. We’ve seen Ricky trying to be the courteous teammate in every single episode this season, so his struggles here feel stale at this point. It’s a nice switch at the end, with Ricky paying his girlfriend’s uncle, who’s a cop, to arrest Alonzo just so Ricky can use his influence to set him free, but that means that Ballers is once again sweeping its potentially dramatic and meaningful lessons under the rug. Alonzo is confronted with the possible end of his career, and what does he do? He walks back into the strip club. That’s not just the boneheaded move of a young player; it’s Ballers ignoring some heavier subject matter because it doesn’t know what to do with it.

The lone bright spot in the episode is the interplay between Spencer and Joe. Corddry and Johnson have wonderful chemistry, and their scenes together, be it arguing about Vernon or confronting the lawyer who’s helping Ms. Lee blackmail their client, are some of the show’s most naturally charismatic and funny. Ballers and “Machete Charge” could use a whole lot more of that.

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Stray observations

  • Rob Corddry continues to be one of the only highlights of this show: “Crack looks like a lot of other stuff.”
  • I do like the way Dwayne Johnson mockingly says “machetes” to the lawyer, Mr. Gomez.
  • This is the first episode that wasn’t available via screener, so I had no idea the show had such a terrible opening credits sequence.
  • Having Charles email that picture to himself sure is the most contrived way to create conflict in your plot.

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