There was recently a rather large kerfuffle involving the NFL and certains acts of free speech, and I think that regardless of your (surely vocalized) points of view on all of this, the endurance and continued success of the NFL cannot be in question because of one singular thing: HBO’s Ballers.
That this show is so highly watched despite its many flaws—that it will continue into a fourth season following the latest mediocre season, which concluded earlier this month—proves that people will always watch football in any capacity, until there is no more football left to watch anywhere at all.
Only Games of Thrones is watched by more people on HBO, and that show is watched by everyone, many, many times over. Ballers is more popular than the sci-fi Westworld, which is far more cunning and entertaining; it draws more viewers than the award-winning Big Little Lies, which has far better acting; and it also outranks the award-winning Veep, which is way more hilarious.
Ballers is by no means a good show — but it sure is entertaining. It does a few things really well, and a lot of other things with middling results (like writing, acting, storytelling). Perhaps most importantly, though, it’s pretty likeable. Ballers isn’t a show you hate-watch, but you do binge. It’s not a must-see, but it’s worth a watch. Here’s why.
Somewhere along the way—maybe after Doom, but before Tooth Fairy—Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson became an insanely popular figure. Soon he could do no wrong, and impressingly transitioned from being known by his wrestling moniker to his real name. He carries movies all by himself, regardless of how bad they are (Baywatch), while being the go-to-guy to revitalize action franchises (Fast and Furious, G.I. Joe.), and also a man who can sing well enough to star in a great Disney animated movie (Moana).
He’s been a secret agent, a bodybuilder, a god, a demigod, a cursed Egyptian warrior, and various noble fathers and citizens. With Ballers, Johnson faces his toughest role yet: a former football player who is super handsome and charming, who has a lot of money and is a pretty good guy, and who lives in Miami and hangs out with friends. Well, maybe it’s not a stretch, but there is no Ballers without Johnson making the questionable plots and generic dialogue believable. There is also something particularly humble and sweet about Johnson, and a lot of other people in the same role could easily make his character insufferable.
Also, his chemistry with Rob Corddry, who plays his fast-talking, party-seeking business partner, is pretty wonderful.
This one is geared more towards sports fans, but it can’t be underestimated. That the National Football League is an actual thing that exists in this fictional world is a very big deal, and essential to the success of the show. All too often, film and television shows simply just can’t get the rights to use the NFL logos, and thus, anything about professional football inevitably falters with fake teams (the pretty decent movie Focus has a whole scene about gambling on the ‘Super Bowl,’ but the two teams playing are made up; it hurts).
Ballers exists in our universe, more or less, where the NFL is a thing as we know it, with the Miami Dolphins and Dallas Cowboys and so on. What’s more, the show features real players who appear as themselves, and even though they aren’t the best actors, it’s always a good way to go for a show about football (see: The League).
Ballers can easily—and to a certain degree, lazily—draw parallels to another popular dude-focused HBO show: Entourage. Both follow young, attractive guys as they embrace fame and money, and both feature a lot of glamorous lifestyles. But the actual dynamic of professional sports, and in turn Ballers, is that there exists another level of wealth and power above the athletes.
Now, the particular story arcs of Ballers aren’t at all deep or powerful, but it does well to present the precarious position of so many athletes and how tenuous their holds on a career can be. We start to see how athletes in the real NFL can have their jobs threatened based on their beliefs, and how they can lose their livelihood if injured. Ballers does well to make us realize that, while these guys are really rich for the moment, not many people are looking out for them, and it can all quickly disappear.
If we’re going to stretch a little and include an entry about class structures, economic inequalities, and power struggles between employees and their far wealthier employers, then we need to just check off the obvious here, too. A lot of the men who watch the show want the life.
Ballers takes place in Miami, and it sure does look like a lot of fun. There are party buses, party patios, and party boats. Everyone is young and beautiful, the weather is great, and it focuses on, you know — rich and famous football players. There are also a lot of attractive women, which brings us to the last reason why the show is successful.
Let’s not pretend that the excessive amounts of sex and nudity aren’t a major factor in the show’s popularity. If anything, it’s to be expected at this point on the network. Save for a few comedies, HBO leans heavily on people being naked, even when it’s pretty weird and unnerving like in Westworld. Yes indeed, in a world of alcohol, drugs, money, fame, and hot weather, Ballers provides a solid amount of naked people.