Herodotus told us to call no man happy until he is dead. The same is true of television: no series, no season, no episode can be called good until it is over. All endings matter. And it is for this reason that the first episode of HBO’s Ballers is good, while the subsequent two are bad.
The three things that you need to know before you keep reading are a) Ballers is the new Entourage, b) I do not like Entourage, but c) I kinda like Ballers.
Point A is not debatable. Everyone agrees that it is the new Entourage. To be more specific, it’s the “Entourage of the NFL,” and remember that Entourage was always “Sex and the City for men.” Which makes Ballers the “(Sex and the City for men) of the NFL.” (Sex and the City, if you cannot remember it, was the Girls of the late ’90s and early oughts.)
Regarding my dislike for Entourage: I have only seen two episodes. The first two. There was not a single moment during those first two during which I thought to myself that I should continue watching. I gave it two, rather than one, out of a sense of fairness,and because I’d finished The Wire and needed something else to watch. The second episode of Entourage is the worst episode of television that I can recall finishing. It’s a terrible way to spend thirty minutes. I would rather spend thirty minutes on an episode of Duck Dynasty or the first ninety pages of a Dan Brown novel.
The reason that Entourage is so bad is that it is nothing but watching good things happen to bad people. (I am aware enough of Entourage to know that, yes, the show continues within the mold of bad people, good things, throughout its run). There is nothing more boring than a television show in which the characters continually get what they want. But enough about Entourage. Let’s discuss the trouble with Ballers.
The trouble with Ballers is that it defies genres, but not in a good way.
Television, like all stories, should fall into one of three categories: comedy, tragedy, or history. The trouble with Ballers is that it’s not funny enough to be comedy, not dramatic enough to be a drama, and not real enough to be reality. It exists in some purgatory between these worlds.
There are some very funny moments, enough that I’ve been surprised by how many genuine laughs I’ve emitted while watching it. An awkward funeral, an aggressive confrontation, a painfully-rehearsed athlete interview. Most of the best lines are either from the mouth of, or at the expense of, former Daily Show correspondent Rob Corddry.
But the trouble is that the show can’t decide if it wants to be funny or sad, just like it can’t decide if it’s a glorification or indictment of the lifestyles onscreen. What makes the first episode so good is that we see the protagonist’s struggle. He is being told to “monetize friendships.” He is told he has insufficient funds when trying to withdraw at an ATM. He has a sleazy, irritating boss, and a lot of prospects he can’t quite close. He still hasn’t determined who he is after leaving the NFL. It’s the insufficient funds moment that happens in the last second of the first episode, making it a good, compelling, engaging episode.
But then things begin going too well for him for us to really care in the second and third episodes. The third episode is brutal, as we watch Dwayne Johnson’s protagonist throw a blow-out party for the purpose of getting new clients. The party takes up far too much of the episode. Actually, the entire episode is nothing but the party. And every potentially poignant moment is washed away with champagne, cocaine, sweat. Apparently the worst thing in his life is that one of his clients makes poor decisions off the field, and that another one has an annoying best friend trying to manage his finances. Okay, sure, both of those things seem frustrating, but we need more than that to stay interested.
Stories need conflict, and all the conflicts are resolved too obviously, too quickly. The ending of the third episode is nothing more than a white guy dropping a word that white guys are not allowed to say, and then getting thrown into water. That would make for a mildly-interesting anecdote that an annoying friend would tell me during an annoying lunch. In this case, it’s sad to see The Rock and a former Daily Show cast member spinning their wheels with a story that has as little payoff as that.
If we are going to watch a raucous party, then at least show us the hangover afterward. Perhaps that’s the point of the fourth episode, but when a third episode offers as little as this one did, what’s the incentive to get to the fourth?
Why aren’t worse things happening?
My original thesis regarding Ballers, based entirely on the trailers, was that the only thing that could get me interested would be if “the first episode ends with them murdering a guy and then the rest of the show is about them dealing with it.” And then I lightened up, gave the first episode a chance, and realized that there would be a reason to keep watching. That it would resemble Silicon Valley, where every episode is a comedy of errors and ends with a conflict intensifying, or like Bored to Death, where there might be happy endings, but they are overshadowed by the sad, bizarre, hilarious world in which the characters exist.
But no, Ballers is better than I expected, but it’s not as good as it could be, and the biggest reason is because it does not know what it is and so neither do we.
Is it actually a comedy?
Actually, it’s possible that Ballers is a comedy, in the very classical sense. It’s nice things happening to people you don’t know, all leading up to a happy ending. But this is disappointing, as the show has real promise if it can lean into the path its suggesting and show us the dangers that come from only having dreams of “deals and dollars.” Or, on the other side of things, the tragedy of being a minor celebrity with an entourage that bleeds you dry financially.
I should clarify now that there are other things I like about it, both the funny moments and some of the more touching ones: the joy that one former professional athlete has in becoming a Chevrolet salesman is actually touching. The moment when his wife tells him that no, he isn’t overweight, but is rather “robust,” is both touching and funny. And then they break an ottoman, which is good funny slapstick.
The characters are surprising in their charisma, and, unlike the entourage of Entourage, you genuinely want them to win. But that doesn’t mean they should win immediately, which is what we see most of them doing. During the moments they take one step backward, when they stumble, it’s in the midst of taking twenty steps forward.
And when the story loses track of their plotlines and just shows them getting drunk on a yacht, it misses the mark entirely. Ballers is most disappointing not because it’s bad, but because we are given so many hints of the better story that it could be.
Enjoy this? Or disagree strongly? Check out the follow-up to it here.