TV Recap: Ballers, Series Premiere

Poster for HBO's new series Ballers.

Ballers Pilot Plot:

After the unexpected demise of a friend and former teammate, retired football superstar Spencer (Dwayne Johnson) ramps up his efforts to build a post-football career in Miami, and feels pressure from Joe (Rob Corddry), his boss at a financial firm, to monetize his friendships. Meanwhile, recently retired player, Charles, copes with the realities of finding a new job. A talented wide receiver, Ricky is forced to put his pride aside to find a new home. Vernon, a player on the rise, finds himself in a tight spot and reaches out to Spencer for help.

Let’s be honest. The pitch for Ballers was pretty straightforward. A half hour drama/comedy produced by HBO about the lives of athletes and their financial managers. Ballers was Entourage with football players. As someone who really enjoyed Entourage and a big fan of Dwayne Johnson, I was in. Contrary to what we expected, Ballers is more than just football Entourage. Sure it has the fast cars, good looking women, and the general wish fulfillment that Entourage was famous for but buried just beneath the surface there is something else that could make Ballers far more interesting in the long term.

Dwayne Johnson in Ballers.
Photo Credit: Gene Page/HBO

The pilot focuses around retired Miami Dolphin, Spencer Strassmore, who is played by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. In the wake of a friend’s funeral, Strassmore meets with his old friends from the NFL. Some are still in the game. Some, like Strassmore, are grappling with the question of what happens after the game ends. What do you do when, for one reason or another, you can’t do what you’ve spent your whole life doing? Where do you find purpose? Can you ever really quit something as addicting as football?

Here’s where the show’s premise kicks in. Strassmore has decided to spend the rest of his life working as a financial manager. With the help of coworker Joe (Rob Corddry), Strassmore works to use his connections and experience to give himself a successful career in the future while helping his friends stay out of trouble. In the pilot, we see that trouble coming in many forms. Sometimes it comes from hooking up in clubs. Sometimes it comes from getting in fights in clubs. Sometimes it even comes from non club related activities.

Ricky Jarrett (John David Washington) is in the middle of most of said trouble. As one of the only active players on the show, Jarrett is immediately cut from the Packets due to an altercation that blows up on social media and is forced to scramble for a second chance. With the help of some old connections, Strassmore manages to secure a place for Jarrett on the Miami Dolphins. His story doesn’t go anywhere too surprising, although Washington plays the part of the star athlete who needs to learn some humility well.

Dwayne Johnson in a scene from HBO's Ballers.
Photo Credit: Gene Page/HBO

Ricky Jarrett is about what kind of character I was expecting to see on Ballers. He’s talented and well meaning but, if left unchecked, his self destructive tendencies are going to destroy his opportunities. Think Steamin’ Willie Beamen from Any Given Sunday. Jarrett is where Ballers starts to feel like Entourage and that’s fine. A lot of people really enjoyed Entourage because it was fun. We like seeing cocky jerks make fun of each other and then go have sex with girls in the club bathroom. That’s exactly what I was expecting. Jarrett is our Vince and Strassmore wants to be his E.

In comparison, Charles Greene (Omar Benson Miller) seems like Ballers’ Turtle, but unlike Turtle, is the most interesting part of the show. A retired player as the series starts, he hangs out with the guys and hits on girls as much as a faithful married man can but unlike Jarrett, Greene is forced to confront the reality of his situation. He has no job and not very much experience doing anything but playing football. With some prodding from his wife (Jazmyn Simon), Green gets a job as a used car salesman. This is where Ballers starts feeling like more than just football Entourage. We get to watch Greene adapt to normal life all while watching his friends continue to play. Will Green be able to adjust or will he do something stupid as an attempt to recapture his former glory? These are the questions I am excited to see Ballers answer.

I know what you Entourage fans are asking. “If that covers Vince, E, and Turtle, who are Drama and Ari?” That’s a tough one. Joe, played by Hot Tub Time Machine’s Rob Corddry, seems to be on the receiving end of a lot of insults that would traditionally hit Drama. You could expect an actor like Corddry to bring some solid comic relief. We also get a few appearances from Jarrett’s agent (Troy Garrity) but he doesn’t quite have the fire that Ari Gold was famous for. Strassmore may be evolving into the Ari role, which would be awesome.

A scene from Ballers.
Photo Credit: Gene Page/HBO

The pilot episode of Entourage ends with the gang learning that the studio has given Vince’s next big offer to Colin Farrell. Everything is up in the air. Maybe this whole four guys in Hollywood thing won’t work out. Vince tells E, “I hope you know what you’re doing, pizza boy.” That single line grounds all of the partying and nonsense that preceded it, while also giving the audience something to truly relate to. We’ve all been over out head. We understand what these guys are us against.

So much of what we should expect from this season of Ballers comes in the last minute. Like in Entourage, the Ballers pilot has a similar and far more literal reality check. Spencer is out for dinner with his girlfriend (?) and goes to withdraw a couple hundred dollars. After loaning up-and-coming football prospect Vernon (Donovan W. Carter) $300,000 and leaving without the firm handshake he was hoping for, Spencer’s ATM reads “Insufficient Funds”. Strassmore is a financial manager who doesn’t have $200 to his name. I hope you know what you’re doing, Tooth Fairy.
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Matthew Nando Kelly is an incredibly cool and handsome staff writer for Pop-Break who was allowed to write his own bio. He focuses on film, television, music, and video games. Matthew also has a podcast called Mad Bracket Status where he discusses pop culture related brackets with fellow Pop-Break writer DJ Chapman. He loves U2, cats, and the New Orleans Saints. He can also occasionally be found writing lists on Topless Robot and his twitter handle is @NationofNando
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Matthew Nando Kelly is a cool and tough Senior Staff Writer for Pop-Break who was allowed to write his own bio. Besides weekly Flash recaps, he has a podcast called Mad Bracket Status where he makes pop culture brackets with fellow writer DJ Chapman.