I wanted to write this review without mentioning Entourage. Ballers and Entourage are both HBO comedies and they share a number of writers, directors, and producers. The lead names of the lead characters rhyme: Vince on Entourage and Spence on Ballers. Through two seasons, Ballers has settled into the void Entourage left behind: It’s easy, fun viewing that won’t be confused for one of HBO’s critical darlings. And who doesn’t like watching Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson?
In Ballers season 3, debuting Sunday, the similarities between the two shows move past the superficial. In season 1, Spence (Johnson) is working to break his way into being a financial adviser for athletes. He doesn’t want to see them repeat his mistakes. Spence is a scrappy underdog. This is his Queens Boulevard. In season 2, Spence branched out and started his own sports business with his buddy and partner Joe (Rob Corddry). They’re rapidly ascending. It’s Ballers’ Aquaman equivalent. Now Spence is aiming for the moon. He wants to help bring an NFL team to Las Vegas. Through the season’s first four episodes, I had major Medellin vibes. Hopefully Ballers runs through this arc quickly. Medellin took up two seasons of Entourage, derailed the momentum and burnt up any goodwill the show had built.
The main area where Ballers sets itself apart from Entourage is with the acting. Johnson is the most watchable star on the planet, and the supporting cast provides a nice compliment. The standout is John David Washington, who plays the diva receiver Ricky Jerret. Jerret has been plagued by immaturity and, more importantly, daddy issues through the series so far. Washington lets enough self-doubt and sincerity seep through the cocky exterior to make Jerret something of a tragic figure, for Ballers at least. This season has Jerret facing down parenthood. While that storyline is run of the mill, the more interesting arc is Jerret’s faltering mental faculties. Spence has dealt with the football fallout health-wise, and it’s always there to underscore the flashier story elements.
I started watching Ballers during middle-of-the-night feedings with my son. I wanted a low-stakes show to help pass the time. But at this point I’m genuinely invested in these characters. As for the plotting, the larger arcs remain secondary non-starters. Do I want to see if Spence will kick his painkiller addiction and grapple with his fertility? Yes. Much more than whether Spence brings a team to Sin City. Given the show’s efforts to stay current with real-life NFL happenings, this arc is already outdated with the Oakland Raiders already announcing their move. In its early years Entourage built its reputation by being ahead of the curve. Ballers strives to do the same, but you can feel the strain.
Other bits of verisimilitude fair better, like Vernon and his cousin’s involvement with a cannabis company. It’s a goofy lark, but a clever way to address marijuana use among players. Every football season we’re bombarded with reports of failed drug tests, and the show could’ve easily gone this route. That’s not to say the show doesn’t score some easy laughs out of the situation, but I appreciate the effort.
Ballers is never going to be confused for one of HBO’s premier comedies like Veep or Silicon Valley—and that’s OK. Ballers is exactly what it presents itself to be. If you’ve come this far with the show, you’ll certainly enjoy what’s next.