As a former WWE Superstar who eventually swapped laying the smackdown in the ring for powerlifting tired film franchises, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is certainly familiar with the necessity of finding life beyond the lighted stage of his chosen sport. It’s an experience he channels for his first major TV role as an actor in Ballers, the new American football ‘dramedy’ from HBO, which kicked-off on these shores on Sky Atlantic last night.
He plays Spencer Strasmore, a former NFL star who, a year after retiring from the game, is trying to make ends meet as a financial manager for an ever growing roster of hard-partying football stars.
Created by Entourage producer Steve Levinson, Ballers is, yes, strikingly similar to HBO’s trashy bro show: offering a heady dose of vapid celebrities, gaudy nightclubs and a seemingly-endless parade of available, air brush-perfect, dispiritingly underwritten women. You’d think a cast populated by such charmless, entitled characters would be wholly unlikeable, yet Levinson’s script deftly and subtly draws on our sympathies by exposing how these once-adored stars are left feeling listless and abandoned after their respective teams decide they no longer have value as players.
Witness the scene in the first episode, in which JD Washington’s wayward Ricky Jerret, having been cut from his team after getting into a barroom brawl, secretly utters a desperate prayer to play again, as evidence of the surprising humanity Levinson bestows upon the series.
It is of course Johnson who is the undisputed star of the show, his brawn and charm proving to be just as endearing on our TV sets as they are on the big screen. The only possible drawback is that life seems far too easy for his character at this early stage.
Sure, Strasmore has been sucked into his overdraft and is dodging calls from his bank manager, but he still resides in a plush Miami mansion and drives an expensive motor, meaning it’s hard to believe his woes are particularly strenuous. Whereas, if the stakes were higher, there would be more urgency and tension to Strasmore’s attempts to monetise his friends as new clients; without it, Ballers just feels too lightweight to leave a lasting impression.
Click here to watch the trailer for Ballers