Ballers is a new HBO half-hour, but it’s not necessarily a comedy. Set in the world of pro football and starring the Rock as a former NFL star who’s got a new gig as a Miami financial advisor, Ballers strikes an interesting tone. It’s as much interested in the minds of athletes and ex-athletes — their egos, their insecurities — as it is in their on-the-field performances.
Dwayne Johnson provides a terrific authenticity here. What a transition the Rock has made, from WWE star-human-action-figure in the movies to mass-America favorite in everything from The Tooth Fairy (2010) to the current San Andreas, he’s become an adroit, canny actor. Here, playing Spenser Strasmore, a fledgling agent trying to build a roster of clients, the Rock makes Spenser’s anxiety and addiction to pain pills palpably dramatic.
To be sure, that’s dramatic in a comic context. Ballers, created by Steve Levinson, is constructed as a football version of Entourage, casting The Daily Show’s Rob Corddry as its sunnier Ari Gold. I went into Ballers expecting it to be more of a straight-up sitcom, but having watched three episodes, I’m hooked on its mix of laughs and seriousness. Much of the early action centers around Spenser signing player Vernon Littlefield (Donovan Carter), a young man who needs all the financial and personal-growth advice he can get. He’s managed by Reg (London Brown), who thinks Spenser wants to wrest complete control of his client. The conflict is convincingly prickly.
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Along the way, there are sharp small roles for Peter Berg (who also directs some episodes including the premiere) as a coach and The West Wing’s Richard Schiff as the arrogant owner of the agency Spenser works for.
But the success of Ballers will depend on how much viewers like the Rock in this role. I think it’s his best performance yet.
Ballers airs Sundays at 10 p.m. on HBO.