In the age of social media, the lives of celebrities have become more visible and more accessible than ever before. The glamorous lifestyles of movie stars, television personalities and professional athletes can easily be glimpsed on Twitter and Instagram, but HBO’s new series Ballers seeks to take us even deeper into a world that few of us will ever have a chance to experience.
Making his first foray into scripted television (not including his career as a WWE wrestler), Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson stars as Spencer Strasmore, a former linebacker for the Miami Dolphins who was permanently sidelined after a nasty collision on the field. These days, Spencer is working as a financial manager, simultaneously trying to leverage his friendships with former and current NFL players to land some big-name clients and revitalize his own dwindling bank account.
Directed by Peter Berg (who helmed Friday Night Lights and also worked with The Rock on the incredibly underrated action comedy The Rundown), the pilot episode of Ballers struggles a bit to find its footing. Most of this can be attributed to the sheer wealth of characters and plot information thrown at the audience during the scant 30-minute running time, which doesn’t allow for much breathing room. But if the premiere doesn’t grab you, the second episode certainly will, and you should be completely invested by the end of Episode 4.
Ballers also finds time to address many of the real-life issues surrounding professional athletes that have been thrust into the forefront of public consciousness over the past few years. Recognizing that he never planned for the future, Spencer is determined not to allow his friends to make the same mistakes. He loans an enormous sum to up-and-coming Dallas Cowboy player Vernon in an effort to get him out of a bad financial spot – but when Spencer signs Vernon as a client and attempts to regulate his excessive spending, he finds himself at odds with Vernon’s lifelong companion Reggie (London Brown), who doesn’t seem to mind bleeding his friend dry.
There’s also the talented but volatile Ricky (John David Washington), whose appetite for the late night party atmosphere produces a viral video that gets him ousted from his current team. Spencer repeatedly tries to convince Ricky that it’s time to grow up and conduct himself like a professional, but the conversations rarely end amicably. And let’s not forget Charles (Omar Benson Miller), retired and working at a local car dealership while still dreaming of his glory days on the field.
Hell, even Spencer himself has a few cracks in his armor, as the series continually hints that he might still be feeling the effects of his career-ending injury. This is a bold position to take, particularly with the ever-present concussion issues the NFL is currently facing, and Ballers deserves some credit for tackling this problem head-on rather than sweeping it under the rug in favor of something a little less close to home.
The always-charismatic Johnson carries himself confidently through his first starring role in a television series, with his million-dollar smile masking the inner turmoil of his character. There are a few times over the course of the first four episodes where the façade comes down long enough to see how vulnerable Spencer truly is, and Johnson handles these moments like a seasoned veteran. While his status as a box office juggernaut is not in dispute, it’s great to see him taking a role with a little more depth.
Ballers will draw some inevitable comparisons to Entourage, and it’s true that both shows explore the often surreal world of fame and excess, but this series is a fundamentally different animal. There are some very real-world topics being confronted here, and when a player is cautioned not wind up on Deadspin or TMZ, we’re immediately reminded of countless headlines about young, rich athletes doing very stupid things and facing some very real consequences. If Ballers continues to balance the humor and playfulness with authenticity and accuracy, then HBO might have found their next MVP.