TV Review: Free the Rock From HBO’s Ballers

By
Photo: HBO

"If it drives, flies, floats, or fucks, lease it!" That's the advice financial consultant Spencer Strassmore (The Rock) gives his fellow NFL pals in Ballers, and that's the show in a nutshell: ostentatious, competitive consumption; boring, dated misogyny; with an air of hollow falseness. Come on! Everyone knows it's cheaper to buy than to lease a car.

Look, we all love the Rock. That's basically the point of America. So the fact that even he cannot liven things up should indicate just how rote Ballers feels. His Spencer is a former NFL player, now trying to figure out his new career as a financial planner. His boss, Joe (Rob Corddry), is on his case to chat up more business, so he tries: There's the drama-plagued Ricky (John David Washington, who actually played in the NFL and is also the son of Denzel Washington), the hot-shot rookie Vernon (Donovan W. Carter), and aspiring car salesman Charles (Omar Benson Miller), who regrets having retired perhaps too early. There are some bare breasts to fill out the scenery. Cars. Boats. Medallions. You get it.

The Entourage comparison is too obvious to ignore — the shows share executive producers in Steven Levinson and Mark Wahlberg; they're both about the "trappings" of fame and the importance of one's "bros." But this winds up being a little unfair to Entourage: When that show came out, we hadn't, as a society, just spent 11 years shitting on its exact predecessor. So Ballers has the additional strike of being unimaginative. There's also the Arliss comparison, which again does not flatter Ballers. Peter Berg is an executive producer here, too, and he appears in a small role. Where is the Friday Night Lights pathos?

Ballers occasionally creeps right up to an authentic emotion — say, Spencer talking to a doctor about maybe having lasting damaging from chronic head injuries — but then runs fleeing. And yet it's nowhere near fun enough to get away with just being superficial glitz. There's plenty of room for bubblegum shows, particularly in the summer, but there has to be something to it, some kind of distinctive style, or flare, or guiding principle of fun. The Rock's Instagram feed, for example, brings tidbits of joy to those who follow it. "Be more like the Rock's Instagram feed" is I guess my big note for Ballers. It's probably a good way to live, too, or at least a better piece of advice than "lease a human being."