In the US: Sundays, 10pm, HBO
It would be tempting to think of HBO’s latest ‘comedy’, Ballers, as simply a black Entourage set in the world of American football. I imagine HBO would like it to be too, given that Entourage ran to eight seasons, several Emmy awards and has just been resurrected for a movie that is now in cinemas.
Certainly, there are similarities, with the Hollywood glamour and wealth transferred to the East Coast’s plastic surgery capital Miami, where the men apparently all behave just as badly as on the West Coast – at least when they’re not playing football.
However, there are significant differences. For starters, show star Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is no Ari Gold, instead being the one good, sensible calm person in a world of dickheads and *ssholes, who must avoid becoming one of them, even as he tries to carve out a career as a sports agent following an injury that ended his career.
But the other big difference is that Ballers isn’t funny. In fact, it’s actually quite sad, being more like Hoop Dreams, except full of people on the downslopes of their sporting careers. There’s former player Omar Benson Miller (CSI: Miami) who’s reduced to taking a job at a car dealership, where even the dedicated sports fan who runs it doesn’t remember him. There’s real-life former football player John David Washington playing a God-fearing player whose career is hanging on a thread, following numerous stupid off-field transgressions that make him toxic to potential clubs. And every woman is either a nagging WAG or a ‘skank’/‘whore’ out for cash and doesn’t even get a name.
Johnson’s dilemma in the show: to do the right thing, get fired and go bankrupt or do as his boss Rob Corddry (The Daily Show) demands and exploit his friendships with them so he can flourish. And although he tries to do the right thing, that’s easier said than done, as he has to deal with baby-men who are their own worst enemies and resolutely refuse to learn. Well, maybe Washington will this time, but there’s a 60% chance he won’t, Johnson reckons.
I won’t pretend I know a lot about American football, beyond the fact it’s a bit like rugby but slower and with more padding, so I was thankful Ballers has almost nothing to do with football itself, focusing instead on the politics, society and industry surrounding it. From what I can glean from people who do know about American football, though, Ballers isn’t especially authentic or good in that area, and indeed, you’ll have seen most of the characters and situations before in other sports movies and shows.
What is good, though, is Johnson, who is a calm, intelligent presence in the show, and naturally enough for a former WWE wrestler, not only looks the part but seems very comfortable in this world. He’s worth watching in every scene and if you think that as an action star, he can’t be much cop at acting, here he’ll be a revelation to you.
All the same, I can’t recommend Ballers as it stands, because there’s really not much to enjoy about it. You can root for Johnson, as he wades through dirt, but it’s hard to root for the dirt itself and there’s a lot of it here.