I know exactly why HBO wanted to make its newest comedy series, “Ballers.” It's created by “Entourage” producer Steven Levinson, it takes many of that show's lifestyle porn elements and applies them to the world of the NFL and, oh yeah, it stars Dwayne Johnson in his first regular TV role since he called himself The Rock and was a full-time part of the WWE's roster.
No, the question I have about “Ballers” (which debuts Sunday at 10 after the new season of “True Detective”) is why exactly Johnson felt that this should be his first wholly scripted TV series.
“Ballers” isn't especially bad, but nor is it especially good. It's a show that's neither fish nor fowl: not nearly funny enough to really qualify as a comedy (and it's not until the fourth and final episodes sent to critics that it even seems to be trying all that hard to function as a comedy), not serious or complicated enough to qualify as a drama. It's just… a show. Featuring The Rock. And Rob Corddry. And, occasionally, cameos by real NFL players.
Johnson plays Spencer Strassmore, former star Dolphins linebacker, struggling in the transition into retirement, and hooking up with Corddry's sleazy Joe to become a financial manager for guys who are still active players, like John David Washington as a new Dolphins slot receiver, or recently-retired themselves, like Omar Benson Miller as a former offensive lineman trying to convince himself he's happy as a car salesman.
The whole show is a lot of almost, but not quite. There's talk of Spencer suffering post-concussion symptoms (along with flashbacks to him getting his bell rung during games), but only occasionally. The guys all party, but Spencer is so frequently lecturing them about not burning through their fortunes that it doesn't even function on the same fantasy level as “Entourage” – nor, frankly, does anyone's behavior seem so excessive or financially reckless for it to work as a cautionary tale, either.
Even Johnson's usual mega-watt charisma has been dimmed down to a lower setting. This seems to fit the character – Spencer has to deal with no longer being the star attraction – but when you take away your star's greatest natural asset and don't give him anything to replace it, you're wasting an enormous resource.
Maybe that's why Johnson wanted to do the show: to stretch himself and prove that he's more than just the muscles, or the smile, or the raised eyebrow. But Spencer's not a complicated or interesting enough character to really qualify. He's less a stretch than he is a straightjacket.
So why else would Johnson do it? To hang out with the real players who cameo? He's The Rock; NFL players want to hang out with him. To spend time in Miami and get paid for it? I imagine he could call up Michael Bay in the morning, and by afternoon, they'd be filming a “Pain and Gain” spin-off film of some kind. To work for HBO? Sure, there's cachet and good people to know there, but surely there was a better HBO project for him to join. (Just imagine what the characters on “Veep” would say about him behind his back. Or how Nic Pizzolatto might use a guy built like him for his next meditation on masculinity.) As a favor to “Ballers” director/producer Peter Berg (who also has a recurring role as the Dolphins head coach)? Couldn't they just reunite for “The Rundown 2” instead?
Johnson's generally been smart in his career choices, and it's not hard to understand why he might want to expand his horizons, both in the kind of roles he plays and where he plays them. And “Ballers” is ultimately too forgettable to hurt him in any way; he's too big and powerful and charming for all of that. But considering all the great work being done in TV at the moment, in both comedy and drama, and the value Johnson could bring to better shows than this, or vice versa, it's a missed opportunity at a minimum.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org