That the season premiere of Ballers, HBO’s new semi-comedy about life in and around the NFL planetary system, turns out so predictably says something about how joyless those involved with professional football truly believe it to be. The show has the bones of a slogging 60-minute drama cut down to 30, which puts a bottle rocket up its ass, but doesn’t necessarily make it any more fun. Sure, the show is “fun.” But it’s “fun” in the way that Entourage, its fellow Mark Wahlberg-produced spiritual eskimo brother, was “fun”— it screencaps yet another set of party-boys living vaguely despicable, inescapably public lifestyles.
As aspirational fanfic, the show hits the compulsory “I’d fuck like this and spend like that” notes flush; within the first 10 minutes of the pilot, we see three naked girls fucking, several bottles of prescription meds, and Steven Jackson bragging about having bought a living, breathing elephant for $265,000. Wahlberg readily imparts his own sweaty brand of celeb-life verisimilitude, from the above bouts of excess to gross-bathroom-rutting-into-hilarious-bar-fight scenes.
To prove it, we get a ludicrous assault scandal from the get-go. Packers wideout and super-textual DeSean Jackson analog Ricky Jerre has been boning a bottle-service model-type in a radioactive single-occupancy club bathroom, during which time a fairly long line has formed. As they exit, a brosef stops Jerret and says mean things to him, instigating a fight that ends with Jerret punching out the bro. (As for that: This is for me the least realistic bit in the pilot. Not the fight, necessarily, but the transition to the fight. Anyone who’s waited in a long-ass club-bathroom line would know that however mad you get at the drug-snorting/sex-crazed occupants delaying the process is vastly outweighed by your need to piss like a fucking hydroelectric floodgate once your neural synapses or whatever have loosened at the sight of the toilet. The will to fight is non-existent. The capacity to even start some shit is unimaginable without pissing down your leg by the third step, and certainly not without a swarm of strangers breaking it up first. It’s a completely implausible scene, unless that bro was peeing freely just outside the shot!)
The fuck-into-fight scene is one of many where players treat the women like Fleshlights, seemingly shot at the angles from which the cameraman can best high-five the players. As a piece of drama from the HBO shop, this is disappointing. But that’s just television performing a visual narrative service, which isn’t entirely the point of something like Ballers; as a vehicle for a compelling slice of NFL life, the show has a little more to offer than cocktail dresses and a pause button.
In ESPN’s Playmakers, the other spiritual sibling show to Ballers, there was a scene where an older, fading running back bitched to his coach about how his 40 time is within a tenth of where it was, and that he shouldn’t be losing time to a young buck rookie. That is, that his skills and acumen more than cover the fractional difference in speed. The coach’s answer—for my dollar one of the best representations of why football remains a young man’s game—was to go to the tape and look at blocking lanes opening and closing; the old back had spotted a hole in the previous game and been tripped up just as he made it through. “There are maybe five backs in the league who can make that hole,” said the aging player. “Yeah, and you used to be one of them,” was the coach’s reply. (At least, I’m pretty sure that’s how it went. ESPN Death-Starred Playmakers off the internet and I have no idea where to find it now.)
The point here is that these shows are so heavily consulted that the anecdotal stuff is almost certainly based in reality, enough to knock loose that Damn, that’s what that really looks like, huh sensation. So, in Ballers, when the newly available Jerret (Green Bay cut his ass!) jogs up to a fishing boat just one minute late for a meeting with a prospective coach, and the coach pulls out of the harbor while calling the guy an asshole, the scene lands as a gag, but also as a dramatic reenactment of every story you hear about a player sitting out a week or enduring some other punishment for being late to a team meeting. This is where you get the good stuff about what how NFL life really plays.
That’s where the show looks like it’ll be doing its work: You get the point when the Rock is popping pain meds like House, or when he’s taking away DeSean Jackson’s* Twitter account, or when you notice a TV spot in the background showing a brain scan (presumably a case of CTE—a necessarily post-mortem diagnosis) as an ex-lineman’s doctor wife hectors him about getting a job. It’s an ungraceful turn, but as a dramatic device it lands truer than life, since the only time we hear pro athletes talking about dependency on pain meds or the reality of their risk for early onset dementia is when it’s a Serious Topic being discussed in a Serious Setting.
They are serious topics, of course, but the way athletes interact with them as they come up in everyday life isn’t analogous with sitting across from Bob Ley and calling Roger Goodell a dickhead for a 20-minute segment. There’s a good chance a lot of these get addressed at more length during the season, and they could get smart, thoughtful treatments, or the show could just shake some boobie tassles at them and hope you didn’t notice. But as a series of Chekhov’s Vicodin pills, they’re just about the only compelling reason to watch Ballers, which manages to create such a hellish depiction of rich young men having sex and playing sports that even the Rock isn’t any fun. (He’s good, but essentially his character from Snitch, and every other Rock movie of a certain vintage, but without any sign of being able to haul off and beat the shit out of everyone in the third act. So far, at least.)
The message that emerges from all of these little internal realities of the NFL is how unappealing it is to be young, rich, and mired in professional football—or at least, how narcissistic young men can invent scenarios where basic rules of society (and brutal medical truths) conspire to make it so. You can have drunken capricious sex, but you might get cut. You can get out clean and successful, but you might end up guzzling pain killers out of a cement mixer. You can play for the home team, but your coach is a dick, and so is Shula. You probably have brain damage. It’s all so aggressively unfun that I have no idea why anyone would watch it aside from the fact that they will, which, come to think of it, is probably the foremost way that Ballers nails the NFL.