Episode 1: “Pilot”
As the season of Game of Thrones and Silicon Valley disappears, HBO looks to its second round of Summer shows to keep viewers tuning in. While there is much excitement surrounding the sophomore season of last year’s hit, True Detective, HBO is also bringing us a new show titled Ballers that stars The Rock and Rob Corddry. Ballers focuses on recently retired “golden boy” Spencer Strassmore (The Rock) who seems to have retired early from what was a successful career and has moved into the financial management business. I’ve been pretty excited to check out Ballers ever since I initially saw the previews for it because it seemed fun and similar enough to a sports version of Entourage. I really enjoy The Rock as an actor and think he is good enough to carry a show like this. He and Corddry seem like an odd couple that weirdly work on screen and I could easily see them having great chemistry. Ballers premiered on HBO last night, and while it was different from what I was expecting, I definitely enjoyed the episode and thought the show offered a lot looking forward.
The episode opens with Strassmore painfully getting out of bed and immediately popping some pills. He struggles with flashbacks to his pro days where it seems like he hit a quarterback so hard it ended the guy’s career and possibly left him with a serious injury. Although the show only provides a quick glance at this, I really thought it was a unique way to open the show because it immediately provides more depth to what could be a shallow surface character. In the previews it seemed that Ballers would be very similar to Entourage and toss us into the life of a glorified person who is “living the life” and always has fun, but I couldn’t be more wrong.
While the show does have that Entourage vibe, it’s not all glitz and glamour for this character. He was only hired by Corddry’s Joe due to his connections with professional players, and we discover it’s been a year since Strassmore started as a financial manager but has yet to monetize anything and could be let go soon unless he makes something happen. I really like the idea that the character is going to have to earn his success once again after being a football star, and that’s what makes shows so rewarding, when we can latch onto a character and watch them earn their success.
Strassmore’s two best friends are also retired football player, Charles Greane (Omar Benson Miller), who wasn’t as big of a star and is struggling to find work, and eight year veteran slot receiver Ricky Jerret (John David Washington), who has a short temper and ends up on the wrong side of a scandal that leads to him being cut from the Green Bay Packers. The three characters round everything out pretty nicely with a player still in the league, a retiree on the brink of success, and another retiree showing the reality of not being a star.
This pilot episode of Ballers is definitely all set up, but that’s okay. Every show needs to establish itself to the viewers and create the foundation of everything to come. While I was happy with The Rock’s performance, I was surprised to see Corddry with barely any screen time in this first episode; however, I’m glad that these two will begin with a business relationship that grows into friendship. I hope that with Strassmore beginning to cash in on his friendships, Corddry becomes a more active player in the next episode and moving forward, because it would be a shame to have the first season go by with him underutilized.
Overall, Ballers isn’t exactly what I was expecting, but that’s funnily a good thing. I thought the show would be stupid fun, comedic, and relaxed, but it looks like we are going to have to wait and earn that part of the show. There is an uphill climb ahead for Strassmore and he is learning to transition from a professional player to a businessman, which I’m excited to watch. This guy seemed to have it all, but finds himself back on the grind of earning a glamorous lifestyle. In Entourage, Vince just sort of stumbles into his success and enjoys the ride, but Ballers is showing us the climb to that point. I’m probably the most interested in Strassmore’s past and seeing what led to his early retirement because he clearly struggles with hearing himself be called the “golden boy” by everyone as if he never lived up to those expectations during his time in the league. While Ballers looks to be a fun 30 minute show each week, I think there is a chance here to explore some great dramatic topics as well. Seeing Strassmore’s character struggle to get out of bed and pop pills throughout the episode already addresses that we will be seeing the impact of professional football and how much stress it puts onto your body by smashing into other 300 pound men week after week for multiple years. I would really love to see the show continue to incorporate the idea of injury and concussions because although we hear about it all, none of us truly know what it’s like or how it is handled.
Ballers pilot was a lot less funny than I expected, but I’m actually glad about that. I want to watch this be a success story, and I think there was a lot of good set up for that going forward. I really enjoyed The Rock’s performance in this pilot episode but definitely want to see more of Joe and Strassmore’s two friends. If Ballers can develop these characters in a believable way, then I think the show will have no problem finding viewers each week because a sports version of Entourage sounds fantastic.