After a tumultuous journey that nearly found him out of a job last season, Ballers protagonist Spencer Strasmore (Dwayne Johnson) is back in full force as HBO’s football-themed dramedy returns to the airwaves this weekend. Spencer’s registration with the league has finally been approved, and a recent hip replacement has taken care of the nagging injury that plagued him throughout Season Two. But when he fails to deliver Steph Curry for an important business meeting between Anderson (Richard Schiff) and casino magnate Wayne Hastings Jr. (Steve Guttenberg), thus ruining the boss man’s hopes of getting into the gambling business, Spencer finds himself in hot water once again.
Eager to mend the fences – and make a little pocket change for himself – Spencer pitches the idea of bringing an NFL team to the city of Las Vegas. It’s a bold proposal, and more than a little risky, given that Spencer’s current standing with the league isn’t exactly built upon a solid foundation. But Hastings sparks to the idea immediately, and Spencer embarks on the most ambitious endeavor of his career, where he quickly learns that navigating the complexities of a deal like this can be far more difficult – and dangerous – than maneuvering between defenders on the gridiron.
Taking inspiration from the real-life relocation of the Oakland Raiders, Ballers gets off to a fairly strong start for its third outing, albeit with a much larger focus on Spencer and a noticeable shift away from supporting characters. That’s not to say that fan favorites like Vernon (Donovan W. Carter) and Ricky (John David Washington) are discarded completely, but they’re given substantially less screen time than previous seasons, and the material they’re working with almost feels like the equivalent of giving a child busywork in order to keep them occupied when you aren’t sure what to do with them. Vernon suffers the worst, with a yawn-inducing storyline about his desire to invest in a Colorado-based cannabis company, and the friction it creates with the owner of the Cowboys.
Ricky and Charles (Omar Benson Miller) fare slightly better, with the former facing the possibility of fatherhood and trying to remain cognizant of not repeating the mistakes committed by his old man, and the latter receiving a harsh lesson in the brutality of interoffice politics as he settles into his new job in the front office. But whereas previous seasons of Ballers managed to integrate multiple storylines in such a way that characters would frequently cross paths, the four episodes provided for review showcase a more disconnected set of narratives. Other than the pick-up basketball game that opens the season, I can’t recall a single instance where Charles has shared the screen with Ricky, Vernon or Spencer.
Clad in well-tailored designer suits and practically dripping with charisma, Johnson continues to light up the screen as Spencer, and thankfully there seems to be less darkness in the character this time around – his addiction to painkillers has seemingly been conquered, and he even finds himself entering into a romance with an old flame from Vegas. Granted, with the stress brought on by such a massive undertaking as relocating a football team to a new city, it’s unlikely the remaining episodes will be all sunshine and rainbows, but it’s nice to see things working out for the big guy in the short term.
The rest of the cast is uniformly great, with Rob Corddry continuing to imbue Joe with just the right amount of sleaze, Washington crafting the hot-headed Ricky into someone consistently endearing regardless of how many bad decisions they make, and Guttenberg dialing up the arrogance and self-importance while still remaining inexplicably charming. The last is a welcome change from Andy Garcia’s villainous financial manager with whom Spencer found himself at odds last year, but I wouldn’t be too surprised if Guttenberg’s character turns out to be more foe than friend before the season is over. Let’s just hope Spencer is prepared to operate on his level – otherwise, his future may not be quite as rosy as he envisions.