The first season of Ballers, HBO’s comedy-drama series about the lives of professional football players, drew some inevitable comparisons to the similarly-themed Entourage, and it’s hard to argue the parallels. Both shows feature celebrities trying to successfully navigate through various stages of their careers, surrounded by wild parties, scantily-clad women, fast-talking agents and friends looking for a handout. But in its sophomore season, Ballers is taking steps away from that template to forge its own identity, and the results are solid.
Spencer Strasmore (Dwayne Johnson) is running his own division at Anderson Financial Management, but after a reluctant appearance on a sports talk show erupts into a physical altercation with an old teammate, Spencer and his partner Joe (Rob Corddry) find themselves in hot water with the boss (Richard Schiff). Complicating matters further is Andre Allen (Andy Garcia), Spencer’s former financial advisor, who also happens to manage money for Spencer’s rival – and with whom Spencer still has some very, very bad blood.
In an ill-advised attempt to get a measure of revenge against the man who destroyed his bank account, Spencer decides to go after Andre’s clients and convince them to jump ship to Anderson Financial – but when you piss off the biggest player in town, you’d better prepare for some major consequences. The ongoing war between Spencer and Andre looks to be the central conflict for this season of Ballers, and affords both Garcia and Johnson the chance to growl menacingly at each other over drinks at expensive restaurants, where both men are clad in designer suits.
Once again, Johnson displays an impressive amount of range, relying less on his natural charisma and million-dollar smile this time around – mostly because Spencer doesn’t have much to smile about. Aside from competing with Andre, he’s also trying to land a new deal for Ricky (John David Washington), keep Charles (Omar Benson Miller) from going stir-crazy as a new stay-at-home father, and rescue Vernon (Donovan W. Carter) when his antics off the field threaten to derail his promising career. Oh, and that addiction to painkillers is still alive and well, especially with a nagging hip injury exacerbated by the talk show tussle I mentioned earlier.
Shifting away from the lavish lifestyle and party atmosphere that was so prevalent in the first season is a wise choice, allowing Ballers to focus more on the intricate negotiations and clandestine backroom deal-making that audiences rarely get to see. Season 2 also delves further into the inner conflicts that each character is faced with: Vernon is trying to balance his loyalty to his pal Reggie (London Brown) with his responsibilities as a key player on the Cowboys roster, while Ricky feels disrespected when his contributions to the Dolphins aren’t appreciated from a compensatory standpoint. Professional athlete or not, these are issues that anyone can relate to, and the exploration of these problems goes a long way toward humanizing these characters.
Ballers still has a few problems, and its treatment of women continues to be the show’s biggest downfall. With the exception of Julie (Jazmyn Simon), who continues to support her husband’s ambition by remaining steadfastly devoted to him, and Tracey (Arielle Kebbel), who quits her job as a sports reporter when she discovers her new male coworker is making a significantly larger salary, the women in Ballers are little more than window dressing. In the five episodes sent out for review, there are only two major speaking roles afforded to female characters, but there are numerous scenes which find our heroes ogling topless dancers or flirting with barely-dressed babes. Hopefully this is something the producers can address in future episodes, but I’m not holding my breath.
Thanks to the ever-watchable Johnson and an excellent supporting cast, the second season of Ballers builds on the foundation laid in the original 10 episodes. A larger focus on drama might come as a surprise for returning viewers, but the moments of humor and levity are still there (keep an eye out for a hilarious subplot which finds Joe and Reggie trying to procure an exotic pet). Sports aficionados will love the numerous cameo appearances from NFL personalities, but even non-football fans will find plenty to enjoy here.