HBO continues to kill it with original programming and adaptations like Game of Thrones, so it is no surprise the network wanted a thematically similar replacement for their debaucherous hit Entourage, which ended in 2011. The not-quite-apples-to-apples replacement is Ballers, which is anchored by Dwayne Johnson as an ex-NFL player turned financial manager trying to wrangle his prickly talent. There are plenty of gorgeous women, drug and booze-fueled parties, exotic cars, and over-the-top shenanigans to go around, and Ballers is consistently entertaining thanks to Johnson and supporting cast-mates Rob Corddry, John David Washington, Omar Miller, Donovan W. Carter and Troy Garity. The first season fails to make much of an impact narrative-wise, but creator Stephen Levinson introduces a group of likeably troubled characters and, as with Entourage, Ballers quickly becomes about the boys.
NFL superstar Spencer Strasmore retires after an extended career in the league and joins a wealth-management firm, where he works alongside Joe Krutel (Corddry), who constantly is tasked with erasing collateral damage caused by the pair's high-income clients. Strasmore sets his sights on Ricky Jerrett (Washington), a talented but troubled player recently involved in a public sex scandal. Jerrett is traded to the Miami Dolphins, where he immediately pisses off teammates by sleeping with one's much-older mother. Strasmore and Krutel also court Vernon Littlefield (Carter), promising him a lucrative contract with the Dallas Cowboys if he ditches the incompetent childhood friend (London Brown) currently managing his cash. Another major character is Charles Greane (Miller), a former lineman who believes he may have retired to normalcy too early despite enjoying his quiet family life.
Before the first episode's end credits roll, you'll certainly catch the similarities to Entourage: bros, weed, breasts, sick jams, a general lack of good judgment, adult children. These NFL clients are exactly as cooperative as you expect, and Strasmore is not content to sit idly by. He babysits divas, cleans up scandals and uses his own connections to make himself and his players money. Most of the first ten episodes follow the same characters and conflicts, and in that sense Ballers becomes a bit repetitive. The half-hour running time makes it a perfect show to binge watch, but I hope the producers inject some variety in later seasons. Most of the drama is low stakes, and Ballers glosses over Strasmore's trips to the doctor to evaluate the possible brain damage he sustained in the league. The season focuses more on shutting down blackmailing one-night-stands and competing agents, which makes it lightweight but entertaining.
I like Johnson in this role, and he continues to impress when tasked with leading films and shows. The actor is charismatic, believable and funny without making Strasmore a caricature. Corddry is good, too, and he plays an everyman without blending into the background. Miller gives my favorite performance, and his car-salesman retiree gives the show a character you genuinely care about. He adds much-needed substance to the episodes, and bucks the trend of a wild bachelor life to settle down with his wife, Julie (Jazmyn Simon), in suburbia. The show operates within the industry but often glosses over timely issues, like the concussion storyline and salary caps. Ballers is not necessarily concerned with that kind of drama, anyway, and begins its run as breezy, ensemble entertainment. This first season is good, but a few tweaks may ensure a long run for the series.
Each of the episodes receives a sharp, 1.78:1/1080p/AVC-encoded transfer. Digitally sourced, Ballers appears highly detailed, with good fine-object texture and deep wide shots. Colors are bold and nicely saturated, though highlights tend to blow out thanks to the very sunny Florida landscapes. Skin tones run a bit hot for the same reason, but black levels are good for a digital production. I noticed no major compression issues or problems with digital noise.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mixes are also good, with decent ambient noise and plenty of action effects and pumping musical selections. Dialogue is crystal clear and layered appropriately with effects and the soundtrack. There are numerous sound pans and directional effects, and the subwoofer supports a number of more raucous sequences. French and German 5.1 DTS dubs are included, as is a Spanish 2.0 DTS mix. Subtitle options are English SDH, French, German, Spanish, Danish, Finnish, Norwegian and Swedish.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
This two-disc set includes all ten episodes from the first season. The discs are packed in a standard case that is wrapped in a slipcover. An insert offers codes to redeem either iTunes or UltraViolet digital copies of the episodes. This is certainly not the most elaborate package for an HBO series. Inside the Episodes (28:51 total/HD) offer brief insights for each of the ten episodes. That's all you get.
HBO may not yet have replaced Entourage, but Ballers: The Complete First Season is certainly entertaining. Anchored by Dwayne Johnson as an ex-NFL star turned financial planner, Ballers zips around the industry and offers plenty of colorful characters, lots of partying and a number of poor choices from the talent. The narratives could use some work, but this is a good start for the series. Recommended.