Despite tepid reviews, the HBO series “Ballers” exceeded all expectations last year in becoming HBO’s most watched comedy show since 2009.
The recipe used by executive producers Mark Wahlberg, Stephen Levinson and Rob Weiss — who previously worked together on “Entourage” — to recreate their ratings success wasn’t very complicated:
- Start with a bunch of parties and gorgeous women
- Add a dash of gratuitous nudity
- Mix in a ton of clashing testosterone
- Sprinkle in celebrity cameos
- Finish with it routinely looking like all hope is lost before things miraculously work out at the end of the day due to the charm of the main character
The repetitiveness of “Entourage,” as hilariously parodied by College Humor below, eventually led to its downfall and the horrendous film of the same name last year.
But after two uninspiring episodes to start Season 2, it’s time for “Ballers” to move beyond “Entourage” for sports and become more like the 2003 ESPN cult classic “Playmakers.” You know, the one that The Shield coerced into shutting down after one season because it cast the league in such a negative light.
Name a problem the NFL is facing and “Playmakers” had it: Drug addiction, murder, PEDs, homophobia, domestic violence, assault, concussions and cover-ups — just to name a few.
Was it campy? Sure. But it was provocative and dark and unlike anything ESPN has done before or since. And every year that goes by “Playmakers” looks less hyperbolic and more realistic.
The thing is, “Ballers” has the potential to be a highly watched and respected HBO franchise for years to come instead of just guilty pleasure TV.
“The Rock,” who plays the main character Spencer Strasmore, is a bona fide star. Rob Corddry, who portrays Spencer’s business partner Joe, provides good comic relief. John David Washington, son of Denzel Washington, is fabulous as diva wide receiver Ricky Jerret. And NFL stars like Victor Cruz, Terrell Suggs, Ndamukong Suh, Jason Pierre-Paul and Julian Edelman are lined up around the ball to make cameos.
Plus, there will never be a shortage of bros out there interested in voyeuristically watching a show about being an NFL player and all the fame, fortune and women that comes with it.
But here’s a perfect microcosm of the show’s shortcomings: In a storyline that had tremendous potential, Spencer spends almost the entire first season popping pills to deal with headaches related to concussions only to find out that — tada! — an MRI at the end of the season shows he’s fine!
And as Vulture aptly described Sunday night’s heavy-handed episode: “This week, we’re taking on feminism and substance abuse with all the nuance and subtlety of a show that has an extended shot of a woman’s ass as she carries a giant tennis ball.”
The big storyline for Season 2 so far is Spencer trying to get back at his old agent, Andre Allen (played by Andy Garcia), for leading him to financial ruin by poaching Andre’s clients like Terrell Suggs. The only problem? Nobody’s watching “Ballers” to see “The Rock” fight over clients with some grandpa.
So here’s a couple friendly suggestions on how to improve the show.
For starters, have episodes take place during the NFL season so that a show about football actually includes, you know, football. All 12 episodes so far have taken place in the offseason, where there’s only so much drama. I know that filming practices and games would be much more time consuming and expensive, but this is the network that airs “Game of Thrones,” for crying out loud.
And more importantly, be much edgier with characters that are more complex and morally ambiguous and storylines that bring out the skeletons in the NFL’s closet, have higher stakes and messier results.
To start Season 2, Spencer is now abusing painkillers to deal with a hip injury. Unlike in Season 1 when “Ballers” blew it on the storyline about Spencer’s concussions, this should lead him to a very dark place that results in erratic behavior and desperate measures to keep his supply of pills going.
Ricky is a womanizing wide receiver with a temper problem but none of this leads to a big payoff. Instead, Ricky’s girlfriend, Annabella, just blows him off for his trysts or throws his apology ring into a fountain. The next time he screws up, Annabella should go full Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes and burn his house down.
Andre Rison can relate:
And Joe needs to finally screw up so badly that all isn’t eventually forgiven, forcing him to do something reprehensible like skimming money from Spencer or one of their clients to pay off a personal debt.
Because there’s only so long even the biggest “Entourage” fans can watch the same show by another name until they get tired of being served leftovers.
Jim Weber is the founder and former CEO of the college sports website LostLettermen.com, which he sold in 2015. He previously worked at ESPN the Magazine, NBCSports.com and the CBS Sports Network. Follow him on Twitter at @JimMWeber.