We asked resident Entourage apologists Rafael Gaitan and Mark Stack to team up and discuss each week of the spiritual Entourage sequel Ballers. This week they weigh in on both the pilot and the follow up episode and try to decide whether the show is first line material or washed out on arrival.
Mark Stack: There came a time when Entourage died! The brave died with the cunning! The noble perished, locked in battle with the unleashed evil! It was the last day for them! An ancient era was passing in fiery holocaust! The final moment came with the fatal release of the indescribable power — which tore the home of Vinnie and the boys asunder — split it in great halves — and filled the universe with the blinding death-flash of its destruction! In the end there were two giant molten bodies, spinning slow and barren — clean of all that had gone before — adrift in the fading sounds of cosmic thunder…Silence closed upon what had happened — a long, deep silence — wrapped in massive darkness…it was this way for an age…THEN—THERE WAS NEW ENTOURAGE!
Rafael Gaitan: I too miss Vince Ain’t Doing the Movie. In its molten ashes and supercooling, the remains of the world hardened. Dwayne “The Rock” hardened. Let there be– BALLERS.
Mark: We now have the new world of sports and finances. A world that is infinitely more terrifying than Hollywood in the way that it literally destroys the bodies of participants.
Raf: It’s a world in which they deal in numbers and statistics and control is relieved. The world in which crunching the numbers is as literal as it gets.
Mark: Tell me, Raf, were you as struck by that stunning opening scene of the first episode as I was? How many other shows open on a murder-suicide?
Raf: Until this moment I had forgotten it existed, to be honest. That said it was pretty brutal. It felt darkly comedic- the couple having such an insane argument and the smash-cut to a huge stadium funeral. It felt like a mid ’90s Robert Smigel SNL sketch… but not quite in the good way. It was a heck of a way to make an entrance though, because now we meet Spencer “The Wealth Manager” Strassmore (Dwayne Johnson).
Mark: This may be the most unbelievable role Dwayne Johnson has ever played; it’s kind of hard to buy him as being washed up or disrespected by his peers. Can I buy him being flashed by a girl at his buddy’s wake? Totally. But being hit up for money and treated like a child? Nah, son.
Raf: Agreed. I respect his wanting to expand his range and play a different version of himself. It’s the same problem I had with him in Southland Tales: you can see the lines that take you out of the character. But the worst offender in terms of believability has to be John David Washington as hothead Ricky Jerret. He comes across like someone jumping mediums- all of his reactions are big and overplayed.
Mark: Ricky’s a weird character. He’s responsible for the second explosion that sets the pilot and the series as a whole in motion. The way he moves from fucking in the club, punching a polo-bro, and then humbling himself before God feels performative. But I get the feeling that he’s a performative guy.
Raf: Maybe he’ll shake it as the season progresses, but with the exception of seeing child actor Ryan Merriman all grown up, there are few surprises in Ballers. Many people are citing this as Entourage with football players but it’s not quite that, though I will say with both shows there is a feeling of struggle involved. Spencer isn’t signing clients left and right: he’s being questioned about his performances. All of our leads are: Spencer hasn’t signed a big fish, Ricky Jerret can’t hold onto a team, and the always delightful Omar Benson Miller as Charles Greane is constantly being told he gained weight and shouldn’t retire, so he does what all men do in that situation: sell Chevrolets.
Mark: I feel like that has a lot to do with this being about people who live in or around the NFL versus Hollywood. Entourage is a very white show about doing whatever you want with no repercussions and, surprise, it’s got a predominantly white cast. The NFL is built on a lot of black bodies that get broken down over time and thrown away when they are no longer useful. This is a fantasy that involves busting your ass and still not getting away with everything.
Raf: To the credit of the show I feel like that angle might get explored- the first episode has Jerret flatten that one guy in the club, but we do get to see the side that any other show would not: where the guy provoked the confrontation. Granted, Ricky probably shouldn’t have been fucking a bottle waitress in a bathroom but hey man, such is life. Sometimes you just have to wait your turn. It seems to be flipping the lens that Entourage embraced: that show had an enamored relationship with gossip sites and rags, they were almost a character. Here in Ballers they’re another obstacle to be overcome.
Mark: And it should be noted that the entourage of a client Spencer is looking to sign is straight bleeding the man dry to the point where he calls in a $300,000 personal loan from him. Spencer, sad sack that he is, goes along with it in the hopes that he’ll land him as a client only to be thanked with a non-committal slap on the back.
Raf: This gets explored to a more satisfying degree in the second episode, “Raise Up.” All the threads that were set up (a touch too quickly) in the pilot are being pulled on. While this episode did not feature ANY of the 1972 Miami Dolphins (an extra star to the pilot in that regard), this episode, while still structurally shaky, is advancing the line. Football puns!
Mark: The second episode was a major improvement over the first. You get Spencer and his co-worker played by the always game Rob Corddry making the move on that client and you’ve got Ricky humbling himself as the new guy on a team. Ricky’s clearly the Vince of this show but he’s not the star. No, the Ari is the lead this time around.
Raf:I did rather like that moment, when he accepts that he won’t get what he wants. It’s actually a stronger performance from Johnson- seeing him get shot down when you can tell he hasn’t heard “No” for an answer very often is evocative. Still, there seem to be threads but there is no immediacy, no urgency! Example: Spencer is invited to a small brunch to discuss signing Vernon Littlefield (the client he made the loan to) and he discovers there are 20-25 people in attendance. His boss Joe comes with and although they remark on the cost, there is never a sense that the bill won’t be paid or that Spencer will finally get his one-on-one with Vernon. The stakes are high but you can see the slack.
Mark: As an audience, we’re aware that the loan Spencer gave out wasn’t exactly in his budget and you think that’d add some tension or you’d get a scene of him taking Vernon aside to ask him why the fuck he and his entourage are soaking him on what was supposed to be a business lunch. But Spencer plays it cool to Vernon and the audience which is certainly true to what we’ve seen of the character but not very conducive to establishing any dramatic tension.
Raf: Granted I see WHY that is- Spencer can’t show how bad he wants or needs it, and the scene where he finally convinces Vernon does ring true, but there wasn’t a doubt in my mind. Though I am excited to see the sparks between Spencer and Vernon’s childhood friend Reggie, who might as well be dragging from Vernon’s arms. Every time he’s on screen I mentally superimpose dollar signs over his eyes. Try it, it’s fun!
Mark: He’s definitely going on a ride with his friend’s money but it doesn’t seem malicious so much as a general misunderstanding of just how short this window of opportunity is for his friend. He’s acting like the money is never going to stop rolling in and it takes Spencer (as a player whose career was unceremoniously ended after a knee injury) to sober everyone up. He’s a cautionary tale, the Ghost of Football Future, that has a way into managing his friends’ wealth by leading them away from the mistakes he’s made.
Raf: Mark, mark my words: there will be a point where a) Vernon finds out Reggie is stealing, b) Vernon makes a personal loan or some other costly gesture to Reggie without repaying Spencer, or c) both! Sadly I don’t think it will be as tense or rewarding as expected. Not every show can be True Detective. I understand this is fluff and fluff has its place, but just a little more excitement please! Enough with the fancy cars; sure, the show is called Ballers and not Untitled Miami Athletes Project but window dressing does not a set make.
Mark: The title Ballers never feels more purposefully ironic than when you see Charles Greane sitting around the house, having taken up an early retirement, pondering whether or not to rejoin the workforce. He strikes me as a simple guy but he might actually be the smartest character on the show given that he left before the party was over and is finding a way to capitalize on his relative fame as a car salesman. Spencer doesn’t need to manage his money, Charles has a pretty good idea of just how ephemeral his whole lifestyle is.
Raf: Charles is easily the most rounded and interesting character, the one whose stakes are genuine. I would rather watch ten episodes of him trying to sell Dule Hill a truck as a metaphor for his career than most of the plots and sub-plots we’ve been given. Though I can see the code: Charles will eventually decide to return, he will be signed by Spencer and what’s the over/under on career-risking injury cliffhanger?
Mark: We are at Jerry Maguire levels of career-risking injuries.
Raf: “Show me the MRI!”
Mark: The point, though, is that I’m not worried about Charles. He’s got a good head on his shoulders so I believe he could bounce back from anything. Ricky is a whole other story because he doesn’t appear to have any skills outside of football and I doubt he’d be able to rein in his volatile personality long enough to hold down a job at a dealership. He doesn’t strike me as a bad guy but he needs to be protected from the world by Spencer and his agent.
Raf: Agreed. Ultimately, Ballers is a show with not much new to add and a fairly unspectacular way of doing so. The NFL license gives it a legitimacy that even Oliver Stone couldn’t pin down but there is no danger of this show becoming Any Given Sunday After True Detective. Ballers is a show that has some fascinating insights that are just under the surface, but currently it seems more concerned with the flash and panache. Perhaps this is just the foot in the doorway the show is taking before getting to the meat of the stories, but for now it’s coming up short.
Mark: That’s sort of the final word on these two episodes. It tries to flash with somewhat mixed results but, underneath that, it seems like it might actually have something to say about its subject in a way that Entourage never really did. Ballers just might outkick its coverage one of these weeks.
Join us next week as we discuss the next high stakes episode of HBO’s Ballers!