HBO keeps the bro-centric fantasy-fulfillment train chugging along with the debut of “Ballers,” a show filled with star athletes, bodacious women, over-the-top parties and various types of debauchery that occur when people make too much money. Dwayne Johnson, aka The Rock, stars as Spencer Strasmore, former pro football player-turned-financial advisor who has to hone a new skill: converting friendships with his former teammates and colleagues into financial relationships so he can make a living.
If the “Entourage” movie left you wanting more, you may find your fix with “Ballers,” which depicts football players as rock stars. The show comes from the same team that created “Entourage”: executive producers Stephen Levinson, Mark Wahlberg and Rob Weiss. Johnson is also an executive producer. Levinson wrote the “Ballers” pilot and Peter Berg (“Lone Survivor,” “Battleship”) directed and appears in some episodes as a team coach. “Entourage” music supervisor Scott Vener continues in that role on this show as well, which immediately gives the show a similar vibe.
What makes “Ballers” different? Dwayne Johnson. While we’re used to seeing Johnson as the larger-than-life figure he is, his performance here is more subtle and subdued.
We quickly learn Spencer’s football career did not end on a financial high note, and he needs to make his bones at his new job in Miami. Rob Corddry is strong as Joe, Spencer’s colleague at the financial management firm. Joe loves the idea of partying with the rock-star players, but his eye is always on the prize of getting them to sign on the dotted line, and he doesn’t let Spencer take his eye off that ball.
“Ballers” immediately establishes the fact that sports stardom and fast money attract the wrong type of “friends” into a person’s life, resulting in an express route to the poor house. It also depicts the peril of being a public person every minute of the day and how the smartphone is both a tool of convenience and a life ruiner. Spencer’s older and wiser demeanor and his expertise is called into play when Ricky Jerret (John David Washington) gets into a fight at a local bar. Spencer seizes the opportunity to also try to convince Ricky that he’s the right guy to manage his finances, but the lines between friendship and business aren’t so easy for Spencer to blur.
Also in the mix: Spencer’s former agent Jason (Troy Garity), who remains a friend to Spencer and his ally when it comes to helping him recruit clients. Jason’s not a Leigh Steinberg- or Jerry Maguire-type figure, but a world-weary sports agent who’s seen a lot in his years of negotiating deals.
As for women, many of them are decorative (babes in bikinis), which comes as no surprise given the show’s pedigree. There’s a female sports reporter, Tracy Legette (Arielle Kebbel), who has smart, sarcastic banter with Spencer, and possibly more than that. We also meet Julie Greane (Jazmyn Simon), the loving wife of Charles Greane (Omar Benson Miller), a former player who now sells cars, but yearns to play again. With the subtle urging of Larry Seifert (Dule Hill), a team GM who not-so-coincidentally visits the dealership where Charles works, Greane finds that his wish just may come true.
Overall, “Ballers” is good bro-down TV in the same vein as “Entourage.” Dwayne Johnson does a solid job of leading the ensemble, and he’s totally believable as a guy who’s best buds with athletes. As always, Corddry is a good comedic foil to Johnson, and Troy Garity is solid as well.
“Ballers” premieres at Sunday June 21 at 10 p.m. on HBO