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Is Ballers Just a Lesser Sports Version of Entourage?

HBO's new show wants to be Entourage for sports, but it's too decorous to even rise to that level.

by Paul Brownfield
Jul 1 2015, 12:20pm

HBO's "Ballers" uses its first four episodes to establish its bad-boys-of-the-NFL parameters—and relatively speaking they're "Downton Abbey" proper. Yes, there is the doing of blow off bare-breasted women on yachts, a torrent of dick humor as well as the ill-advised leasing of a McLaren. But I have also noticed an inordinate number of very civilized champagne brunch scenes. A show set around the NFL that's really about scones? Roger Goodell would be pleased.

Though the league didn't sign off on the use of its official team logos, it might as well have. So far, anyway, the presence of its apparel and its stars (Giants' receiver Victor Cruz cameos in an upcoming episode) indicates that no reputations, whether belonging to an individual or corporate entity, will be seriously harmed in the making of this comedy.

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The creator of "Ballers," Stephen Levinson, was an "Entourage" writer, and Mark Wahlberg re-appears as an executive producer (another exec producer is Peter Berg, of NBC's "Friday Night Lights," who on "Ballers" also plays the Dolphins' salty head coach).

The idea of a companion series to "Entourage," set in the pro sports world, makes sense. Athletes and movie stars are more and more interchangeable. To that end, "Ballers" delivers the same constellation of relationships that "Entourage" did, the same acceptably reprobate behaviors and familial hangers-on, here called "whisper crews."

The show is set in Miami Beach, during off-season "O.T.A.'s (official team activities). Dwayne (formerly The Rock) Johnson—and sometimes just his fascinatingly massive neck and shoulders, shot from the back—stars as Spencer Strassmore, a newly retired linebacker who played for the Miami Dolphins and is now back on South Beach trying to reinvent himself as a financial manager bringing fiscal sanity to the NFL's current crop of profligate spenders.

As the show begins, Spencer is bereft of clients but soon takes on a hot-tempered wide receiver named Ricky Jerret (John David Washington) who has been cut by the Packers after his latest off-field incident (sex in a nightclub bathroom, though that isn't the infraction; showing up on YouTube punching someone is).

Spencer's other client is a bigger fish—young Dallas Cowboys' defensive end Vernon Littlefield (Donavan Carter). Vernon is coming to the end of his rookie contract and blowing through his remaining cash like tissue paper, too loyal to his boyhood friend Reggie (London Brown).

What's at stake? The Career. Because the NFL is a more dangerous blood sport than acting, this plays more credibly on "Ballers" than it did on "Entourage," a light and relatively stakes-less comedy that would likely have died a quicker death had Jeremy Piven not broken out as super-agent Ari Gold.

"Ballers'" super-agents and money guys are less operatic in their craven desperation than Ari (including Rob Corddry, funny enough as Spencer's cruder-than-crude boss). But that's no big deal, because the show actually has a lot more story going for it than "Entourage," even if every single one of its plots and subplots seem ultimately to function as an apologia for the scandal-plagued NFL (nothing to see here except mistresses, locker-room hazing and a happily married, former Tampa Bay Buccanneers' offensive lineman-turned car salesman coping with the ego-downsizing of retirement).

Spencer himself is popping handfuls of painkillers. He's also broke from his own formerly headlong spending habits, a character detail I find hard to locate in Johnson's doggedly sober performance. He sounds like President Obama in his flattened vocal pattern and spends most of his screen time in a tailored suit, spewing better-living-through-rational thinking.

Spencer is also post-concussed—he has a recurring dream of the time he blacked out after delivering an open-field hit—though I'm not sure the show means to convey that the NFL's brain trauma epidemic can induce an interest in the performance of mutual funds.

And that's where "Ballers" loses me, or at least makes me feel complicit in the NFL's bidding simply by enjoying it. One of the reasons "Entourage" worked as a frothy piece of light satire (at best) is that the movie industry is its own joke, its power-brokers are in a constant state of anxiety-ridden guesswork at what will emerge as the next big franchise. Vincent Chase as "Aquaman?" Why not.

The NFL, on the other hand, more and more resembles Putin's Russia—shadowy and insular and on message, with a 24-7 propaganda machine, ESPN, to use as a wash-and-spin cycle for all of its deeper institutional problems and the emerging science over its extreme violence. The breezy tone of "Ballers"—it's not about domestic abuse or CTE, it's about M-O-N-E-Y—is a giveaway that the show is as risk-averse in its storytelling intentions as Spencer is in his investment advice.

I'm sure NFL locker rooms are full of the fundamentally decent, but can't a brother get a good send-up of what a cultural monolith the league has become? Other than the Tom Brady "Deflate-gate" scandal, the closest thing I've encountered, in fictional form, is Ben Fountain's novel, "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk," about a Marine battalion back from the Iraq War and being trotted out at halftime of a Dallas Cowboys' game as patriotic chum.

"Ballers" would never mean to provoke such deep thinking of the nation's pastime. Even Spencer's concussion flashbacks play like an outtake from the library of late NFL Films pioneer Steve Sabol. "Fifty percent of all linebackers experience concussive symptoms," he is told in an episode to air a week from Sunday. The line is delivered, in cringe-worthy, PSA form, by his sometimes girlfriend, the morning after they've rambled in bed. She wants Spencer to see a neurologist and, in the very same episode, he goes to the doctor. An MRI is scheduled. Somewhere, you think, Spencer is missing a very important brunch.