If you’re looking for a football metaphor to describe the first few episodes of Ballers, the new HBO series debuting Sunday and starring Dwayne “The Rock’ Johnson as a retired football star turned financial manager, you’d probably choose “fumble.” But “fumble” puts the blame on the players. The real problem here lies behind the scenes, where the producers and writers—the show’s coaches, to stretch the metaphor—seem to have called the wrong play to begin with. This show had so much potential—but so far it’s less a dramatization of the very real stakes and spectacle of the NFL than it is Entourage for jocks.
The world of professional football is such fertile ground for a prestige TV series. And yet so far the hot-button topics that have fueled the last season’s worth of NFL media coverage are fully absent from Ballers. A nuanced domestic violence plot could have been TV gold in the wake of Ray Rice, but here we only get women who are referred to as “hoes” or “bitches” or “ass” and span the full spectrum of stereotypes: Nagging Wife, Vindictive Mistress, Stalker Groupie. Even after four episodes, you’re hard-pressed to remember the name of a single female character.
How about last year’s other big story, when an openly gay player (Michael Sam) tried to make it in the league? Also a no-show for Ballers, but the writers do throw in some eye-rolly gay jokes. A brash young quarterback like Johnny Manziel, a team driven by advanced statistics, colorful characters like Richard Sherman or Rob Gronkowski—there are so many potential plots and stories to mine.
And yes, Ballers is a comedy, so it’s understandable that the show might not want to follow in the gritty footsteps of Playmakers, a 2003 drama series that ESPN cancelled after 11 episodes under pressure from the NFL. It was accused of being “too real,” too unflinching in its portrayal of players’ problems, both on and off the field. But in the days where some of the darkest comedies are also the funniest, like HBO’s own Veep, it’s easy to imagine a version of Ballers that gave football the same treatment.
Instead, creator Stephen Levinson relies on what he knows. Levinson was an executive producer on Entourage, as was his business partner Mark Wahlberg, who’s also on board for Ballers. They’ve carried the babes-and-bros legacy of Vincent Chase and Ari Gold to the NFL here, elbowing a group of better ideas out of the way.
Johnson stars as Spencer Strasmore, a former Miami Dolphins standout who’s hired at a financial services firm with the directive to sign his friends and fellow athletes as clients. No one in this new crop of players comes with a particularly interesting story. There’s the player who gets in trouble off the field and wishes he could get back in the game. And the player from a poor background who remains loyal to his friends and family, even if it goes against what’s best for him. There’s nothing there that’s uniquely relevant to the NFL or today’s culture—the show could just as easily be about any major sport at any time in the last 25 years.
The worn-out storylines might be salvageable with compelling characters or snappy writing, but Ballers doesn’t have either one. Rob Corddry, as Johnson’s boss at the financial firm, gets in a couple of decent one-liners, but no one in the cast has the presence to hold a good scene with Johnson, even with his superhuman charisma dialed back to mortal levels.
Johnson is the biggest action movie star in the world, with an unmatched recent record of making everything better. Furious 7 has reeled in more than a billion dollars, in part because of moments like Johnson flexing his muscles and busting out of his hospital cast. His most recent effort, San Andreas, rehashes nearly every disaster movie storyline ever made, but Johnson’s likeability lifts the movie out of the garbage pile and into harmless summer fun territory.
In Ballers, his gifts are underutilized. Spencer mostly throws out advice to his young charges, some good (“I’m not your big brother.”) and some not-so-good (“If it drives, flies, floats, or f**ks, lease it.”). The Rock has proven himself capable of handling a lot more than pep talks. But amid this dopey, macho mess, there is a glimmer of hope in Episode 4, when we’ll get a storyline related to one big, freighted topic in the real-world NFL: the lingering damage from concussions. It may just be the halftime adjustment Ballers needs.