Good First Impressions: HBO's "Ballers" and "The Brink"
This past Sunday, HBO filled our summertime "Game of Thrones" void by debuting two new original comedy series, thereby furthering their bid to remain champion of original television programming. And when you play The Game of Ratings, you either live or you subsist on reruns of things that used to make you great and hope to God you stumble across another "VEEP" or "Newsroom". Certainly it’s too soon to tell if "Ballers" or "The Brink" will be absolute successes, but first impressions are not entirely meaningless, and these two shows have made some good ones thus far.
"Ballers" centers around Spencer (played by Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson), a former NFL star-turned-financial manager after suffering from an injury that has left him on the sidelines of football culture permanently. He is still very much a presence in the social scene of Miami, though, as he is hoping to one day “monetize his friendships” and take over the business affairs of all his NFL friends.
Looking at the trailer for this show, and all of the subsequent advertisements for it, it would seem like "Ballers" is more of a travelogue for the excessive lifestyle of Miami’s well-to-do than anything else. And indeed, we do get our fair share of scenes in nightclubs, palatial Miami digs, and of our stars wooing the unending parade of models that apparently roam the streets of South Florida. One could easily dismiss this as another attempt to repeat the success of "Entourage", but the show is concealing a bit of a sweeter and more soulful side to it, which is embodied perfectly by Dwayne Johnson. The Rock serves as our emotional connection to the story, and the job fits him like an NFL-certified glove. This could partly be due to the fact that Mr. Johnson’s own experiences with professional football weren’t quite realized, and so he can empathize with the idea of unrealized dreams and disappointment within the context of this world. Beneath the flash and the swagger (which is partially genuine) is a man who looks upon the past with regret and at his current situation with some uncertainty. He was a great player who had his livelihood snatched away by chance and was left to fend for himself by the people (his coach, team owner, and financial manager) that he thought would have his back.
And it’s this quality within Spencer that elevates this first episode -- and hopefully the entire show -- from just a shallow story about glitz and glamour to one of potentially deeper meaning. Ultimately, he wants to monetize the friendships in order to protect them, so that the people that he cares about don’t suffer a fate similar to his.
But putting aside the (hopefully well-meaning) intentions of the drama, I should also point out that there are laughs to be had as well, and the show is able to balance the more serious moments with those laughs quite nicely. John David Washington does well in the role of Ricky, a current NFL star whose hot temper lands him in even hotter water with the hopes that Spencer can somehow save his career. He’s a flashy playa type, but there are also signs of him being able to shape up and show true commitment to his life’s calling. The scene where he kneels down to pray might be one of the more awkward and hilarious moments I’ve seen on television in a while. Omar Benson Miller is the Third Musketeer alongside Spencer and Ricky, and his role as Charles Greane is somewhat refreshing next to the struts and preening of our other characters, as he lacks their confidence and bravado and brings a bit more humility to the table. Rob Corddry is also featured as Spencer’s boss, and his capacity to ooze sleaze and greed serves him well here as it has in past roles.
"Ballers" is off to a fine start, as this first episode proved that it could tell a story and set up our characters without so much expository dialogue that it hinders any kind of progression. I felt pretty at ease with "Ballers" after my first go around and look forward to seeing how the rest of the show develops.
When President Julio Navarro (played Esai Morales) promises Avi, the Prime Minister of Israel, that, unlike his grandchildren, he will call him back, then you know you are currently in "Dr. Strangelove" territory. With "The Brink", you have the story of a military takeover in Pakistan by an insane revolutionary who wants to blow up Israel because he believes they are using electro-magnetic waves to sterilize the people of his country (more love for Dr. Strangelove).
Enter our core cast of characters whose minds are never really 100% on the task at hand, which is pretty much the wellspring for most of the comedy in the show. Here we have Jack Black playing Alex Talbot, a low-level employee in the American Embassy located in Pakistan. His only thoughts seem to be about getting high and getting women, although later he speaks about having wanted to do some genuine good when he first went to work for our government, which serves as the reasoning behind his later actions. He and his driver Rafiq (played by the always hilarious Aasif Mandvi) soon become caught up in the riots taking place due to the government overthrow and must take refuge in the home of Rafiq’s parent’s house, which leads to some comic bashing of Alex’s lack of knowledge about a country that he should be an expert on.
Our next players up to bat are Defense Secretary Walter Larson (played with a devilish and somewhat raunchy charm by Tim Robbins) and his personal assistant Kendra (played by "Workaholics" alumni Maribeth Monroe). Larson is a boozing sex-hound with a tendency to include violence towards himself in his somewhat seedier fantasies. It is clearly Kendra who does all the leg work in this team, but make no mistake that Larson is no slouch when it comes to talking politics and strategy. He can recite the facts given to him with the best of them and, deep down beneath the liquored up and foul-mouthed persona, there is actually something that almost resembles a human being that seriously wants to avert this disaster without triggering a catastrophic war. Robbins and Monroe are great in these roles, with Robbins, in particular, shining bright as he seems to be channeling a sort of darker and sleazier Norville Barnes (his bumbling good-natured character from The Hudsucker Proxy).
And finally we have Pablo Schreiber (whom most folks know as Pornstache from "Orange is the New Black") as Z-Pak, an Air Force pilot who supplements his income dealing drugs to everyone in his unit in order to afford the alimony payments that go to his drug dealing (and supplying) ex-wife. He has just been tapped for a secret bombing mission that may change the course of this conflict for better or for worse, but unfortunately he took some of his own medicine (and the wrong kind, for that matter) so it will probably be for the worse in this case. Mr. Schreiber has long since proved he was a great talent and his comedic chops seem to have only gotten stronger in this new role.
With "The Brink", it’s not necessarily the zingers that will get you chuckling, as the humor is not really predicated on quick wit. It’s the absurdity of the situations wholly that supply the laughs, which were, to be honest, not of the belly kind, at least for me. "The Brink" is more of a slow burn which had me rolling my eyes at the ridiculousness of our characters while appreciating the satirical touches that were placed here and there. As with "Ballers", I’m looking forward to seeing more of the show and finding out just what its endgame truly is.