Booze, boats and women constitute the opening of the season two premiere of “Ballers” and characterize much of the ostentatious imagery of football in all its professional and personal glory on the show. Though the partying and excess depicted in “Ballers” may be the TV incarnation of some repressed fantasy of what it’s like to have that much success and wealth, the show does more than just flaunt it. It uses tropes of the industry to show another side of it –– a side where Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who plays former NFL star Spencer Strasmore, must find fulfillment in his post-career life and redemption for all his youthful indiscretions.
This desire is the driving force behind Spencer’s aspirations as he settles into his new career as the go-to financial manager for professional football players. As season one taught us, success is capricious –– and Spencer charms his way into helping his clients navigate the personal and financial perils that come with overconfidently indulging in it. In doing so, he adds a much welcomed maturity and depth to counter the abundant antics of his clients.
But even a character as measured and composed as Spencer begins to show cracks in his armor, especially when his past resurfaces. In the season two premiere, this takes the form of Andre Allen (Andy Garcia), a competing manager from Spencer’s financial firm who used to represent him and who he blames for his injury and ultimate departure from the league. It’s clear from the beginning of the episode that Andre will be implicated in the central conflict of season two both as a remnant from Spencer’s past and as new competition. At the restaurant opening of one of Spencer’s clients (a cameo appearance by Ndamukong Suh), Spencer refuses to even shake Andre’s hand.
Fittingly for a former successful NFL player and new businessman on the rise, Spencer’s Achilles heel is his pride, which is threatened by Andre’s belittlement of Spencer. But “Ballers” may have shown their hand too soon by openly identifying Andre as the primary conflict that will drive season two’s plot. After hinting later in the episode that Andre’s actions spurred the downfall of Spencer’s career, the mystery surrounding the animosity between the two is unceremoniously lifted and Spencer vows to steal all of Andre’s clients –– a brazen statement and an even bolder mission characteristic of Spencer’s unwavering determination and cementing the roles both Andre and Spencer will play this season.
Though season one hinted at Spencer’s weaknesses, it’s clear the writers intend to trigger them in the current season. Johnson’s charm carried him through season one and effectively pulled together a great ensemble, but it appears that he’s shed his characteristic good nature in an attempt to reflect the tipping balance of his confidence and composure. However, it seems that both Johnson and the writers know that the emotional range required to develop Spencer’s character are beyond Johnson’s charismatic grasp, and he’s better left lashing out in short bursts of emotionally charged bravado than brooding and acting troubled because he hasn’t gotten closure on his past.
This is proven in his spat with football player T-Sizzle (NFL player Terrell Suggs), who’s represented by Andre, on “Glazed and Confused.” Sizzle manages to prod Spencer into a violent altercation on live television following a round of sharply written verbal smackdowns. Though heated, the sequence is intercut with reactions from Ricky (John David Washington, “Malcolm X”) and his crew, who are simultaneously entertained by Spencer’s comebacks and shocked at the crack in his impermeable veneer. The comic relief briefly allowed to us during the awkwardly tense interaction serves as a reminder that the show –– though it addresses serious topics in the football industry –– shouldn’t be taken too seriously.
While head injuries and partying entire fortunes away are not joking matters, “Ballers” is able to address them with both poignant brevity and adjunct humor. Though, these qualities may go unnoticed among gratuitous scenes of snorting coke off strippers (scenes that were bizarrely absent from this premiere). In fact, the energy in the premiere was lacking so sorely that more strippers would have been welcome. Maybe if greater attention had been given to the supporting cast, including the comically brash Joe (Rob Corddry, “Children’s Hospital”) and the unassumingly sweet Charles (Omar Benson Miller, “CSI: Miami”), the episode would have succeeded in capturing our interest in the overall season.
But the best the show could muster was more contract trouble for Ricky and Charles, a recycled conflict that was already overused in season one. What makes the show so great is how Spencer and Joe manage to pull through for untethered characters like Ricky and Charles, who are essentially lost without Spencer’s well-meaning, but sometimes floundering guidance.
As a start for what’s been hyped up to be an exciting season, the premiere is certainly a let down. But then again, “Ballers” is brought to us by the same creators as “Entourage,” and has shaped up to be the product of an identical formula (just sub out Hollywood for the NFL). Let’s just hope that the Andre-Spencer conflict pans out to be more promising than Ricky and Charles’ contracts.