One summer, I watched somewhere between 10 and 30 episodes of Ballers, HBO’s comedy-drama starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson as a former NFL player turned pro athlete financial manager. I don’t remember how long it took me, nor could I tell you much about those 30 episodes, which passed through me as if I were a sieve. One doesn’t really “watch” Ballers. One becomes Ballers. Ballers, as they say, is life.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s favorite show is now on Netflix, part of a select wave of series making the leap from HBO’s premium catalog to rub shoulders with us plebes in the Big N’s peanut gallery. As much as a tectonic shift as that might be business-wise, Ballers fits right in with Netflix’s wide swath of shows you can fold laundry to. It’s lifestyle porn, a hangout show with dramatic hooks, Entourage if anyone on Entourage ever had to deal with a real problem.
As Spencer Strasmore, Johnson plays a Miami Dolphins superstar whose career is cut short by an injury. Like a lot of real-life athletes, Spencer is forced to make a hard pivot after the end of his pro career. Off the field but not out of the game, Spencer decides to reinvent himself as one of the premier financial managers for professional athletes, to make sure they get paid and stay paid even when their time on the gridiron is up. (Here is where I briefly interrupt my recommendation of Ballers to recommend the excellent documentary 30 for 30: Broke, required viewing for anyone with even a passing interest in pro sports.)
Ballers is largely about Spencer’s rise up the ranks in the business world, as he translates his athletics grindset and stamina for partying to the work of courting and coaching hot young players like Ricky Jerret (Tenet’s John David Washington) through a minefield of offseason hazards. Like most characters on Ballers, the viewer is lured in by The Rock’s nuclear charisma, and kept there by the show’s sensational antics (parties, suits, sex) and its grittier subplots (Spencer’s painkiller addiction, which threatens to send him plummeting to rock bottom with every success).
Walk in on any episode of Ballers, and it’s fairly obvious that none of the show’s heavier subplots will really stick — at least not to Spencer. Ballers is a show that’s always living in the moment, where everything is as Baller or Not Baller as it’s ever going to be. Ironically, Ballers’ ephemeral-feeling storytelling is a direct mirror of its text, full of men who need to be pushed to think a little bit beyond what’s right in front of them. This is also what makes it the perfect Dwayne Johnson vehicle.
On camera and off, Johnson is the man of The Moment. And if The Moment is over, like with Black Adam? He’ll just make a new one. That is the Spencer Strasmore ethos, a role so perfectly suited for Johnson that it circles back toward actually being a creation of Johnson’s; perhaps the last role he actually acted in before his career became characterized by uncomplicated action heroes. He is the engine that drives the show, and how much you like Ballers will entirely depend on how much you want to let him take your Netflix queue for a ride as you simply vibe to five seasons of Dwayne smizing.
Like I said, very little of this show is likely to linger in your mind. You’ll just remember that it happened to you: A dizzying haze of suits and shades and Dwayne Johnson’s megawatt smile. Boardrooms and dramatic phone calls from sports cars. Television as narcotic and sedative, an upper and a downer flushed down with sugar-free Red Bull on a summer night you can’t quite remember. The summer you watched Ballers.
Ballers is now streaming on Netflix in addition to Max.