Despite all the money, cars, and mansions, Ballers isn’t a flashy show. As a drama, it’s fairly low-key, and as a comedy it’s hardly pulling out any belly laughs. In some ways though, that’s to the show’s benefit. Sometimes a show can stand out just by being different from everything else on its network. There’s no way Ballers can compete with Veep or Game Of Thrones, but the point is that it doesn’t have to. The issues of the first episode, from the sometimes-stilted dialogue to the relative lack of narrative momentum, seem less detrimental and obvious in “Raise Up.” There’s a comfort that pervades the second episode of the season, as if the show is settling into a groove and no longer trying to adhere to all the expectations of a series premiere.

I mention that the drama in Ballers is low-key not because the stakes aren’t high for the characters–the young rookie Vernon potentially going bankrupt is certainly serious–but because “Raise Up” never really cranks the drama or tension up to eleven. Ballers, and “Raise Up,” is easy to watch (and you can take that how you want) because it creates conflict, resolves or extends that conflict, and boasts some great performances while doing so.

“Raise Up” continues the juggling act of the series premiere, bouncing between the separate struggles of Vernon, Charles, Ricky, and Spencer. To ­Ballers’ credit, the episode doesn’t feel overstuffed or unfocused, mostly because the show is taking its time with the narrative. In “Raise Up,” that means cementing Vernon as a client for Spencer, seeing how Ricky adjusts to playing for the Miami Dolphins, and watching as Charles tries to parse out his identity post-football. Each of these storylines is compelling in their own way, dealing with various issues facing athletes both on and off the field. It’s a smart move on the part of Ballers; by focusing on the personal and the professional, “Raise Up” manages to separate itself from Entourage while moving closer to the territory of a more amped-up, NFL version of Friday Night Lights. (I’m not saying it’s anywhere near as good as Friday Night Lights, so let’s not panic just yet, okay?).

While Charles was the standout of the premiere, “Raise Up” proves to be a showing for John David Washington. It’s clear that he’s got his father’s presence and charm­–he’s the son of Denzel Washington–and that makes Ricky, a potentially entitled and irresponsible character, much more relatable. Washington plays Ricky with equal parts vulnerability and bombast. Those qualities are evidenced in a scene where Ricky shows up to Dolphins training camp and sees that another receiver is wearing his signature number 18. Ricky opens up to the receiver about how the number has sentimental value to him­–we later learn that the value is linked to Ricky’s father. When the vulnerable tact doesn’t work though and the receiver turns him down, Ricky offers to buy the number for $40,000. Bombastic moves like that is what Ricky is all about, but they mask that deeper insecurity and vulnerability, and that’s what Washington beautifully captures throughout “Raise Up.”

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While Ricky is vulnerable in the emotional sense, Charles and Vernon are vulnerable in different ways. Charles is handling his new sales job well, but Larry (Dulé Hill), an executive with the Miami Dolphins, keeps coming around the dealership and asking Charles about his football career. He’s convinced that Charles retired too early, that a lineman with his speed could still make an impact in the NFL and that he’d be highly sought after. The idea of going back to pro football is certainly appealing to Charles, though he’s keeping those thoughts from his wife at the moment, perhaps too worried about shattering her new domestic dream.

In Charles and Ricky, Ballers has found some interesting thematic territory. Both characters are exploring their own identities, trying to figure out the difference (if any) between Charles and Ricky the NFL players, and Charles and Ricky the off-field individuals. Again, the performances are key to this thematic exploration working as well as it does in “Raise Up.” Both Washington and Omar Benson Miller have an everyman charm about them, a certain charisma that makes them a pleasure to watch, that makes them natural protagonists. While it’s hard to see Spencer Strasmore as anyone other than Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Ricky and Charles feel like fully-realized characters just two episodes into the season.

Donovan Carter isn’t nearly as compelling a performer as those two, but his character, Vernon, is perhaps the most vulnerable on the show. He’s the rookie who’s found success and now feels like he owes everyone a little piece of it. He’s surrounded by friends and family, all of them crashing at his house and joining him for lavish brunches. His friend Reggie is the one “handling” his finances, which means that he convinces him to buy the new Bugatti rather than put some money away for a rainy (or concussed) day.

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Spencer spends the episode trying to nail down Vernon as a client after their verbal agreement in the premiere. Spencer is in a unique position to convince him to sign on; when he finally made it to the NFL, he had people coming around looking for handouts too and it lost him a lot of money. He doesn’t want Vernon to repeat his mistakes so he impresses upon him the importance of having someone handle all the nitty gritty of his financials.

Ultimately, Vernon signs on as a client, with the exception that Reggie gets a say in all decisions. What’s remarkable about this final decision, and about “Raise Up,” is that Dwayne Johnson is hardly even involved. Of course Ballers would market itself as a show about Johnson’s Spencer Strasmore, but through two episodes, this is more of an ensemble than HBO’s promotional material let on. Leaving Johnson off the screen would seem detrimental, but it actually works to the show’s benefit. “Raise Up” shows that Ballers has a deep bench in terms of performances, and the patient storytelling means that we have time to check in with everybody. It’s not a particularly fast-paced or high-stakes episode of television, but it does see Ballers settling into a confident and often compelling groove.

Stray observations

  • Between an old lady telling Spencer that it was good he retired because he “couldn’t get the edge anymore” to Spencer’s crack about Axe body spray, this episode was much funnier than the premiere.
  • I’m down for some more backstory in terms of the relationship between Ricky and his father. Bring on the Field of Dreams tears!
  • Peyton Manning doesn’t actually drive a Buick. The more you know.

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