Ballers, and The Rock's Quest to Make Entourage Watchable

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In the seventh episode of HBO’s Ballers, Spencer Strasmore -- retired NFL superstar turned rookie financial manager played by Dwayne Johnson (henceforth referred to as The Rock, because he’s The Rock) -- is in his car driving while listening to Tech N9ne’s “Hood Go Crazy”.

Strasmore is technically not alone, given that he has an urn in his passenger seat, one holding the ashes of his former teammate Rodney Slater. As he’s making wisecracks at the urn (bear with me), Strasmore loses attention of the road and has to slam the brakes to avoid a crash.

In the process, the ashes spill from the seat. Strasmore has to put everything back into the urn, or put forth his best effort in recreating what was there. After resolving this mini-drama, he straps the seat belt on the urn, makes another joke, and drives off.

Scenes like this scatter, pardon the pun, the first season of Ballers, which concludes tonight at 10 PM. As is the case with nearly every project he takes, the show is largely powered by The Rock’s on screen charisma. And, because Mark Wahlberg and Stephen Levinson are executive producers, Ballers is also a show that comes attached with many pre-attached labels. The best of which came from a writer at Jezebel who described Ballers as a “masculinist tragicomedy”.

The most common description of the show, however, is “Sports Entourage” with Johnson as a more handsome version of Vinnie Chase, if Adrian Grenier were played by an actor with actual presence. The season preview trailer didn’t exactly shy away from the basic elements, of course. All the fame, fortune and scantily clad women, just shot in Miami.

The show also offers the same kind of cookie cutter modern-day-famous-person-problems storylines: Athlete A sleeps with the mother of a teammate, Retired Athlete B has an unfulfilling stint as a car salesman and wants to return to football, Athlete C is repeatedly held back by a close friend who doesn’t have the smarts to make the best business decisions for him. There’s also the conveyor belt of cameos. Even if, in small doses, drop-ins from Jay Glazer, Chris “Birdman” Andersen, Victor Cruz, Julian Edelman and Terrell Suggs are entertaining.

The Rock is, of course, predictably great, maybe one of a handful of people who can hold a show with this type of premise together. Also, “Right Above It” as the show’s theme song set to a montage of The Rock’s football playing career is perfect, or close to it. So, things work, but Ballers still feels like a work in progress. Or if you would like: a prospect in his first season figuring out how to maximize his skillset.

Most of the season has also focused more on the comedy while just pushing at the tragic edges of the life of a pro ball player. It’s not necessarily a flaw with the show. After all, John David Washington -- or, Denzel’s son -- plays the role of troublemaker athlete prototype Ricky Jerrett perfectly. Rod Corddry as Joe Krutel, The Rock’s financial advisor sidekick, has limited screen time but makes the most out of all of his scenes.

The central conflict of the show lies with Strasmore, who exudes a confidence that you would expect a character played by The Rock to display, except he is damaged goods, both financially and psychologically. Similar to Superman in the presence of kryptonite, Strasmore spends nearly the entire season avoiding a CT scan to find out whether he has any brain damage from his playing days. When the results come back showing that he’s just fine, Strasmore requests a follow-up test, just to be sure.

It turns out, his problems are psychological, which is the exact problem he’s hoping to and still avoids. You see, Strasmore is haunted by nightmares of one play in his career where he ended the career of an opposing quarterback. That player, Dan, who works at an auto collision shop now, reunited with Strasmore in the most recent episode, and provided him with some closure on their incident. Except, Strasmore is still not okay.

It is this storyline, if it becomes the primary focus of the show instead of one track on a compilation of plot points, which could propel Ballers into something more. It feels like the show is on the cusp of sketching out a meaningful tragic hero, but for now, it’s more focused on humming along with the basic rhythms of what an Entourage facsimile would be.

The Rock as Strasmore will likely never reach the depth of a Tony Soprano, and Ballers will never (nor was it created) to make any sort of social commentary like The Wire.

But instead of settling for being a slightly more believable Entourage, Ballers should emulate another HBO series: Eastbound & Down. At the height of his show’s creative genius, Danny McBride hit perfect notes as Kenny Powers, a selfish garbage human whose wandering search for any meaning in his life took the series for some dark turns in the later seasons. The comedy was still absurd, even immature at times, but the tonal shift pushed the main character of that show into the spotlight.

Put it another way, it made his journey worth following.

Strasmore is, one way or another, heading for an existential crisis, and will have to confront his problems head on. It’s inevitable. Maybe it happens in the season finale on Sunday, and life will simply go on, and we move to a different set of problems next season for our financial advisor with a subpar set of clients and not a lot of funding in his checking account. Or maybe when the show returns, Strasmore doesn’t just sweep up those ashes and drive off without the scratch. And instead the show spends the time to flesh out the only character and plot that’s worth investing in.

And if the showrunners decide to move in this direction when Ballers returns next year, it can check another sports cliche off the list: the rookie player who puts it all together and makes the leap in year two.

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