Ballers is a behind-the-scenes NFL dramedy that’s built from the spare narrative parts of Jerry Maguire and Entourage. From the former is the premise of a faded hot shot who must desperately broker big-money deals to keep the rarefied life he knows afloat, and from the latter is a celebration of bros being bros, reveling in scantily clad women, yachts, expensive bars, sports cars, and a generally reckless sense of abandon that’s powered by a male sensibility untroubled by courtesy or conscience. As in Entourage, we’re supposed to look up to the famous men offered here and even sympathize with them, despite the abundantly obvious fact that they’d never extend us the same courtesy. Unlike Jerry Maguire, though, the creators of Ballers don’t grossly, naïvely liken sports-business machinations to reaching a higher communal plateau. The series equates the practice of salary negotiating to a pissing contest in which even money plays a supporting role, eclipsed by the almighty ego that drives, say, a deeply indebted rookie defensive tackle to scoff at 75 million dollars for five seasons, because they’re truly worth 101 million.
In theory, an unwavering celebration of unchecked celebrity debauchery is no more or less tedious than a predictable, often hypocritical condemnation of it. At its best, Ballers stirs these equally knee-jerk reactions, both usually spurned by envy, together and allows the frictions to bounce off one another in a spikey, ideologically unresolved fashion that recalls ironically exhilarating greed fables like The Wolf of Wall Street or the liveliest, most astute portions of Any Given Sunday. We’re clearly meant to enjoy these men behaving badly, but a discernable panic also courses below their actions, pivotally distinguishing Ballers from the contemptuously pointless Entourage. Directed by Peter Berg, the pilot exhibits a jagged sense of humor that springs from the terror that these football players, worshipped as gods by many Americans, nevertheless feel at the prospect of eventually having to live merely as wealthy men who routinely have their asses kissed and their cocks stimulated in essentially any manner that their imaginations are capable of conjuring. These men may be at the top of the American food chain, but they’re still slaves driven by exaggerated versions of everyday capitalist fears.
Berg may owe his slick, hyperbolic mise-en-scène to Michael Bay, but he’s grown into a more confident pilferer over the years; his images emit an immoral charge here that recalls the debauched, TV-commercial sheen of Bay’s Pain & Gain. Unfortunately, Berg only directed the pilot. The other three episodes made available for press are overseen by Julian Farino, who stages the various parties and bar-hopping orgies with a competent but less distinctive sense of anonymously efficient coverage, lacking Berg’s facility for imbedding the Miami cityscapes with an aura of neon-hued coldness that suggests avarice as a corporeal free-floating form. This formal conventionality shifts the show’s emphasis back to the low-stakes negotiations themselves, rather than on the energy emitted by the entitlement that’s fueling them. This calls one’s attention, for instance, to the disingenuousness of the protagonist’s plight: Spencer Strasmore (Dwayne Johnson) is supposed to be a broke, retired football player turned financial adviser, but he still lives in tailored suits and awakens in a nice bed with an obliging hottie du jour, generally doing whatever the hell he pleases. These “money problems” represent a pitifully insincere sop to the audience, trying to make Spencer relatable to us.
Johnson doesn’t need script contrivances to render him likable anyway, as he possesses a remarkably charismatic ability to draw us in on his wavelength despite his resemblance to a Greek god. The actor doesn’t cheat with sentimentality either: He’s cognizant of the self-absorption that lingers under Spencer’s aggressive methods of ingratiation. Spencer plays the role of wizened sage to the young football players he’s trying to wrangle into his firm, but he’s still beholden to similar whims and temptations. This isn’t an interesting character, but Johnson keeps us watching, mostly for the pleasure of seeing him move; he seemingly becomes a more dynamic camera object with every passing project, and there’s a potentially good recurring joke built around the actor’s physical gravitas. Male friends have a way of pretending to hit on Spencer, expressing their awe over him in a typical gesture of intimidated straight-male homage. Ballers sits right on the fence separating indulgent male fantasia from knowing spoof of the same, but it goes down surprisingly easy, considering the familiarity of its DNA. Johnson wears this series as confidently as his character’s one-of-a-kind suits.