“Entourage with football players” is the way promoters were touting the new HBO show Ballers, which premiered last Sunday. And there certainly are superficial similarities: superstars and their hangers-on, glamorous clubs, and an easy abundance of babes, money, and drugs—not to mention the same team of producers and filmmakers (Mark Wahlberg and Stephen Levinson) behind both shows. But on a more substantial level, the two shows stand in stark contrast to one another.
While Entourage features an ensemble of leads, Ballers centers on big-screen action star Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Johnson plays Spencer Strasmore, a former pro football “Golden Boy” whose promising career was sidelined early by an injury that shattered not only his knees but also his dream of sports glory. Now munching painkillers like Tic Tacs, Spence is trying to move forward with his life as an investment counselor, working for a very unsentimental boss played by the scenery-chewing Rob Corddry, who is constantly pressuring Spence to “monetize his friendships.”
In Entourage, Vince and his boys are living the dream—or at least, working toward it. In Ballers, Spence’s dream is already over. In the pilot’s opening scene, for example, Spence literally dreams that he’s back on the field, the roar of the crowd in his ears—and then his eyes snap open to hard reality.
That reality requires him, as an investment counselor, to try to knock some maturity into professional athletes who are still living the dream but are too shortsighted and immature to grasp that one day—any day—that dream could end, leaving them forgotten, unemployed, and without any marketable job skills. Much of the tension in the show stems from Spence’s efforts to instill in these players the need to live with more thrift, common sense, and thoughtfulness about their futures.
The pilot episode is loaded with examples of players with too much money and too little sense. An NFL superstar crashes his Maserati with his mistress inside, killing them both and leaving none of his assets to his wife. A rookie player has already spent his $12 million signing bonus and needs to borrow three hundred thousand dollars from Spence to keep his hangers-on—some of whom he doesn’t even know—afloat. One former player whose life no longer has any purpose is reduced to applying for work at a car dealership, where he isn’t even remembered as a player. Hot shot wide receiver Ricky, played by Denzel Washington’s son John David, is an impulsive bad boy whose behavior is ruining his all-star career. All in all, it makes for a rather unsettling premiere for a show ostensibly categorized as a comedy in the vein of the lighthearted Entourage.
In a quiet monologue that shows the charismatic Johnson has real acting chops and is more than just a million-dollar smile, Spence tells the arrogant young Ricky,
You better wise the f*ck up, ‘cause you got one contract left and when it’s done you’ll be out on the streets with the rest of us. You keep f*cking up like this, you keep acting like a little kid, when it’s done—and you’re done—you’re gonna be broke and miserable.
“And you wanna know what the worst part about it is?” Spence continues. “Nobody will give a f*ck about you. I been there.” He pauses and sighs. “You need to grow up.” The twist is—minor spoiler alert—Spence himself is still learning that lesson. The $300,000 he loans to the rookie leaves Spence himself broke.
In future episodes things may change, including the tone, which is only occasionally and mildly humorous. But so far Ballers is getting mixed reviews because it isn’t quite the amusing, hedonistic joyride fans of Entourage were expecting. In fact, Ballers is the anti-Entourage. It’s not about living the dream; it’s about waking up and growing up before the dream becomes a nightmare of purposelessness and wasted lives. And in that important respect, Ballers may surprise its critics with real depth, and may disappoint those looking only for an Entourage-style fantasy. That’s a good thing.