The new comedy Ballers, starring superhuman Dwayne Johnson AKA The Rock, isn’t exactly a comedy. That doesn’t have to be a problem, but it might become one since HBO has specifically been promoting the show as such.
Johnson plays Spencer Strassmore, who’s obviously a big fan of diplomatic security service agent Luke Hobbs from the Fast & Furious movies, because he’s got the exact same figures tattooed on his upper body. He’s got the build for it, so why not, right?
Congratulations, you’ve made it to the second paragraph. That was an easy joke, but actors with (big) tattoos have a serious disadvantage in their profession. They’re in different roles all the time, aren’t they? At some point, a tattoo that keeps being inherited by the next character they play will get in the way. It’s precisely for this reason that Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) put his one (the Breaking Bad logo) between two fingers; undetectable on screen, unless he ends up in a Star Trek sequel and starts doing the Vulcan salute.
Johnson’s tattoo is not an issue in the reboot of Californication called Ballers. Wait, what? Yes. The show has a lot in common with Showtime’s series about lovestruck writer Hank Moody, and not just because there are boobs to be seen. They’re a little out of place, anyway. In Californication, boobs would be shown because they’re the topic of a conversation. In Ballers the nudity’s plainly gratuitous. It happens twice, when girls have their tops off, both times during a seemingly meaningless sex act. It makes you question what this show is pursuing to be.
Boobies aside, Ballers has captured much of the dramedy tone of Californication. If The Rock had been asked to think of a way to reboot Hank Moody, this is probably what he would’ve come up with. That doesn’t mean it’s a ripoff or a mediocre copy; the show’s perfectly capable to stand on its own. You have to get through the very first scene, though. It’s an odd choice to start off a new show with a funeral and make comedy out of it. It’s such a hard thing to pull off, even if the show’s been on the air for a number of years. We all remember Charlie Harper, don’t we? After burning every bridge Charlie Sheen had left, Two and a Half Men let him die in the premiere episode of season 9. Despite the laugh track, it wasn’t funny.
After the funeral, the show quickly gets into a groove. There’s fast dialogue, many back and forths, it’s snappy, to the point, quick on its feet. More importantly, it also gives Johnson the opportunity to… wait for it… act. He’s not the one in charge of saving the world, on the contrary. He’s trying to make a living after his professional football career, and it’s not going so great. Relying on his contacts, old friends, he’s fighting an uphill battle and taking risks. We’re probably going to have a lot of fun watching him struggle to keep away from the black hole that is retirement. At the same time, he’s trying to advice the players who are still playing, to not make the same mistakes. But they do, of course.
Despite playing bad asses in bad ass movie franchises, Johnson actually has an acquired taste in roles. Every now and then, he steps out of the box and takes on a part you don’t immediately associate with him. This is one of those times. Spencer Strassmore’s one step away from being down on his luck. His story’s a balancing act and Johnson does a fine job walking that tightrope.