Ballers. Because you haven't played one single meaningful game in your life until you play life itself.
That's what the show's tagline should be. Created by How to Make it in America's Stephen Levinson, executively produced by Mark Wahlberg, Ballers is HBO's latest foray into harmless and mind-numbingly dumb entertainment for the sake of entertainment. It's a show, the title says, about pro ballers. Namely, pro football players—because they're the special kind of stupid. Ballers is about balling, a concept long ago introduced to the social consciousness as symbolic of those with greater financial means. Ballers, quite apropos, is about those who are flush with cash.
It's also by large, after the pilot episode at least, relatively dumb. That's not to say that it is bad necessarily, just that it is dumb. The wrong kind of dumb too. The kind of dumb where a gifted slot receiver's fiancée tells him that, "The first rule of PR is not getting caught f cking a skank in the bathroom," and said baller answers with "Well, I've done way worse."
Dwayne Johnson plays retired NFL player Spencer Strassmore, now entering the next phase of his life as a seemingly underqualified financial manager. It's a serious role for the man formerly known as The Rock, one he is well suited to play despite needing to curb his otherworldly charisma. Strassmore has friends everywhere and knowns everyone, including offensive lineman Charles Greane (played by Omar Benson Miller). He must navigate a daily life of keeping at arm's length eager manager Joe (played by Rob Corddry), who doesn't seem to understand the retired player's hesitation at signing current NFL players and great friends like slot receiver Ricky Jerret (played by John David Washington). Strassmore thinks you shouldn't mix friends and business; Joe believes you just need new friends.
But there's a version of our universe where Ballers could be good. HBO was at the forefront of the revolution during the golden age of television and offers its viewers this latest opus that's largely been referred to as "Entourage for football". It could be more than that if it only were to discuss the many, many unflattering aspects of the lives of professional athletes, who often have a much harder living and becoming functioning and productive members of our society than they do scoring touchdowns.
That is, because winning football games is easy compared to life; you only need to catch footballs. You run. You break tackles. And you score touchdowns. But in life? In life, there are no 15-yard penalties. There is only an ill-advised purchase or three. Only $300,000 you'll never see. Only an unfortunate branding session with some random woman at the club. In life, there's no glory... but there sure is a job at the Chevrolet dealership.
If it wants, HBO could create something good with Ballers, a show about largely unimportant men with overinflated egos doing unimportant #sports stuff. It could create a show that tackles the place of domestic violence in sports, where women are too often little more than lingerie that men may use and abuse to their convenience. It could discuss the difficulty of retired players of becoming new people once their daily lives stops revolving around sports and brotherhood. It could turn Strassmore's apparent addiction to prescription pills into an exposé of the ways professional athletes sacrifice their long-term health for short-term glory and money. Entirely too many athletes mismanage the large swaths of money they make while playing sports, and Ballers should discuss the problem in earnest as well.
And to be fair to the show, there appears to be creative impulses to tackle each of these themes; that much was clear with the pilot. But what Levinson and co. should be cautious not to do is to force each of these discussions down the viewers' throats; let each of these happen organically, as the show unfolds. Or, you know, risk actually becoming Entourage for football, where everything always works out no matter what.