"Ballers," the new half-hour comedy from "Entourage" executive producer Stephen Levinson, stars Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson as a retired professional athlete navigating the uncertainties of life after football. Like Levinson's former show, it's full of testosterone, but this series has the potential to produce more layered and thoughtful comedy.
Johnson, who resists letting his natural charm take over every scene, is Spencer Strasmore, a former NFL player who pops painkillers like candy. Spencer trusted an unscrupulous money manager who stole most of his earnings so post football, he works as a financial planner for a hyper guy named Joe (Rob Corddry). Joe hired Spencer for his contacts, the set-up being that athletes are terrible at managing their money. It's a year into the job, Spencer is underperforming and Joe tells him the time has come to "monetize his friendships."
Two of these friends are Ricky Jerret (John David Washington) and Charles Greane (Omar Miller). Ricky is cut from the Green Bay Packers after a nightclub brawl but with Spencer and his agent's help he is picked up by the Miami Dolphins. His second chance turns into a third chance when he arrives late for a meeting with the head coach who writes him off. Ricky earns back the coach's respect with a display of maturity and sincerity. He represents the reckless player who takes his career for granted but the story balances this with a reality check that feels authentic.
A more grounded character than Ricky, Charles retires from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a life of lazy domesticity. He spends his days on the couch watching TV and eating junk food before he gets a job as a car salesman. Like Spencer, he lands the job because his boss is impressed that he is a former player (even though he's never heard of him). It's a commentary on the powerful image pro athletes have among a large segment of society. As a character, Charles is relatable and likeable and shows the most potential in terms of bringing depth to the storylines.
The tone of the show slips uneasily between comedy and drama but it has an opportunity to say something interesting about being labeled an elite athlete. What this identity means to both current and former football players as well as those on the outside looking in, is the heart of the show. At times, it tackles this subject with clichéd dialogue but it's a promising premise.
Calling the series "Ballers" is a deliberate way to reference both football players and the slang term that refers to guys who made it from the streets to the big time and are prone to over the top displays of wealth. So far, the show has avoided glorifying this meaning which gives it more substance than flash (except for most of its representations of women which are disappointingly stuck in sex object territory). How deep that substance goes however, remains to be seen.
"Ballers" is on Sundays at 10 p.m. EDT on HBO.
Melissa Crawley is the author of "Mr. Sorkin Goes to Washington: Shaping the President on Television's 'The West Wing.'" She has a Ph.D. in media studies and is a member of the Television Critics Association. To comment on Stay Tuned, email her at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter at @MelissaCrawley.