June 22, 2015

SHOWBUZZDAILY Series Premiere Review: “Ballers”


BALLERS:  Sunday 9PM on HBO – Change the Channel

BALLERS is alarmingly ramshackle by HBO standards.  Of course, it’s got enough A-list lineage to justify it getting on the air several times over, with genuine movie star Dwayne Johnson in the lead, and most of the Entourage production team attached, including Mark Wahlberg, this time joined by director Peter Berg (who directed Johnson in The Rundown and Wahlberg in Lone Survivor) to boot.  The pilot, though, written by series creator Stephen Levinson–another Entourage vet–is so insubstantial that without those names involved, it’s hard to believe the network wouldn’t have demanded at least another rewrite or two before putting Ballers on the air.

Johnson plays Spencer Strassmore, a former NFL player now trying to make a post-football life for himself as a financial advisor.  He’s been hired by Joe (Rob Corddry, doing his genial a-hole thing) for his connections to current athletes and their mega-incomes, but hasn’t been delivering them as clients.  That’s what we know about Spencer a few minutes into the pilot, and we don’t know any more when it’s over.  Johnson has skyrocket charisma, and he’s fun to watch even when nothing is going on, but at a time when movie people are exploring TV to perform material with more grit and substance than the big studios allow, Johnson isn’t being taxed here any more than he was by Furious 7.

The pilot is so vague that it’s not even clear who the regular characters are meant to be, and who are the guest stars.  The storylines, such as they are, feel like discards from an Entourage writers room, as Ricky Jerret (John David Washington), an athlete who punched a guy at a party, gets cut by Green Bay and has to humble himself to the Dolphins coach (Berg, giving himself a cameo) to get picked up there, while Vernon (Donovan Carter) needs a loan from Spencer because he’s managed to spend his entire rookie contract on his family and hangers-on, and Charles Greane (Omar Benson Miller), a retired pro, gets a gig for himself at a Chevy dealership, where he too is supposed to exploit his former glory.  Even Entourage at least had its central friendships to serve as a base for its narrative, but although the characters on Ballers know one another, none of them seem to have any particularly strong ties to each other.  (Starz’s Survivors Remorse is a more effective Entourage-ish sports comedy.)  Other than Spencer himself, if the other characters were replaced next week, it wouldn’t have any impact.

Ballers doesn’t have any insights to share about pro sports or finance that couldn’t be found on any of a dozen websites, and it lacks even the inside-baseball fun of Entourage‘s Hollywood gossip.  It just sort of slides through your attention on Johnson’s charm and Berg’s slick filmmaking.  Superficiality isn’t its subject, it’s the show’s mission statement, and that’s not usually the HBO brand.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."