Troy Garity, Dwayne Johnson

It’s inevitable that HBO’s latest half-hour comedy, Ballers, will be compared to Entourage. There are certainly plenty of reasons why the two shows can be spoken of in the same breath. There’s the fact that Entourage executive producer Stephen Levinson created the show, and that Mark Wahlberg serves as an executive producer here. More than just the people involved though, the two shows share a similar tone, one of overflowing masculinity in a world of very rich and potentially shallow people.

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The season premiere opens on Spencer Strasmore (Dwayne Johnson), a former NFL player who’s pain-addled and looking to find a life for himself post-retirement. He’s been signed on by Jim (Rob Corddry), a goofy power player at a Miami financial firm, to be a financial manager. Jim wants access to Spencer’s to friends. He sees Spencer as pure dollar signs, as a man who not only has charisma and smarts, but also boasts a built-in clientele. Everybody knows that athletes have no idea how to manage their money or prepare for a life outside of professional sports, so Jim sees Spencer’s relationships as an opportunity for big business.

The true reality of planning for a career post-football sets in when Rod, a friend of Spencer’s from his NFL days, dies in a car crash and leaves his family without a will or life insurance. The setup here, which is meant to motivate Spencer in terms of focusing on his new job, feels completely contrived. The whole scene boasts a strange tone, one that doesn’t quite find the balance between being comedic or dramatic, something that pervades the premiere in general. On the one hand Rod’s death should be a lesson for Spencer and the rest of his NFL buddies, a moment of reflection that sets the dramatic stakes for the series going forward. On the other hand, Spencer can’t get through his funeral eulogy without women in the crowd flashing their crotches at him, or without his friend and Green Bay Packers wide receiver Ricky Jerret asking him if he should work on getting the numbers of various “funeral hoes.” The crassness of the humor doesn’t hit, and neither does the pathos. The fact that Rod died while in the car with his mistress doesn’t help with that either.

Despite such an auspicious start, the premiere mostly finds its footing by simply establishing beginnings for a handful of characters. If the first part of the episode is overly reliant on exposition and contrived stakes and motivations, the rest of the episode is by contrast quite efficient in its storytelling. We meet Vernon, a young NFLer who’s already spent his massive $12 million rookie deal and is looking for a $300,000 loan from Spencer to help his family, which might include a few random hangers-on. There’s Ricky, who gets cut by the Packers after an altercation at a nightclub only three weeks before training camp starts. Ballers does a good job of setting up is storylines for the season, giving us just a hint of what these characters are about without relying too heavily on exposition.

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One of the more interesting aspects of “Pilot,” and is a potential strength of the show going forward, is its human element. Every character here (in a refreshingly diverse cast, it should be noted) comes with their own baggage, their own unique set of circumstances. For Spencer, dealing with Ricky is different than dealing with Vernon, both of whom Spencer signs on (however unofficially) as his first clients. Where Vernon seems unable to responsibly handle his newfound financial freedom, Ricky takes for granted everything the NFL has given him. There’s personality to these characters, especially Ricky, played with ample charisma by John David Washington.

The premiere’s most subtly intriguing storyline though involves Charles Green (Omar Miller), a former offensive lineman for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers who’s retired and looking for a job. Charles is the most grounded of the bunch. He has a wife who supports him and despite his general malaise at no longer being on the field, seems legitimately focused on making something for himself post-NFL.

After a day (the last of who knows how many) eating chips and Ho Hos while lying on the couch, Charles finds the motivation to pound the pavement and look for a job. It’s not long before he’s given one as a salesman at a local Chevrolet dealership. Again, the storytelling here is contrived–seriously, he gets a job that quickly?–but Charles ris a relatable character in a world that’s populated by characters who probably aren’t familiar to any of us, so let’s give him a break for now.

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If Ballers is to succeed, it needs to be about more than just a story about rich athletes who are struggling to figure out how to manage their money. It’s promising that the premiere never really glorifies the rich and famous. While “Pilot” has its fair share of issues, from the complete absence of women as people and not sex objects, to some trite dialogue about identity, it also boasts a fair amount of charm. When Charles gets his dealership job, and when Ricky gets his second (and third) chance with the Miami Dolphins, it’s a win for Spencer.

“Pilot” mostly works because of that human element, because it’s easy enough to cheer for Spencer to succeed. The struggles facing Spencer, Charles, and Ricky feel real and lived-in. They are or were famous athletes, but their problems are universal, from filial responsibility to financial management and career anxiety. “Pilot” doesn’t reckon with these issues in any truly unique or substantial way, but it also doesn’t sweep them under the rug. That’s just enough to carry a series premiere.

Stray observations

  • Welcome to weekly coverage of Ballers! Here’s hoping it rockets past its Entourage comparisons and finds a meaningful (or at least fun) story to tell.
  • I’ll admit, I’m a sucker for a good fantasy football joke. Rob Corddry’s Jim has the best of the premiere: “What am I going to do, play in an IDP league? That’s for suckers.”
  • Is $250,000 for an elephant a good deal?
  • We all know that Dwayne Johnson has endless charisma, but let’s not ignore the solid performances from the rest of the cast in the premiere. Omar Miller and John David Washington both do a great job here.

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