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Ballers premiere recap: Pilot

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Gene Page/HBO

Fresh from saving people from an earthquake in San Andreas and diving headlong into a remake of Big Trouble in Little China, Dwayne Johnson headlines his first television series in Ballers, a funny, charming, and surprisingly in-depth look at life in—and after—the NFL.

Johnson plays Spencer Strasmore, a retired journeyman defensive end who seems haunted by an injury inflicted on a rival. Still young and needing something else to do, he has taken up at a financial consulting firm, where cohort Joe (Rob Corddry) hopes he can reel in pro athletes who want to do business with one of their own. The premiere also introduces us to a handful of Johnson’s other friends and cohorts, including a bad boy wide receiver looking to make a comeback, an offensive lineman-turned-car-salesman, the GM of the local Miami Dolphins (played gamely by The West Wing and Psych veteran Dule Hill), and an over-extended rookie who taps Johnson for a loan so he can provide for a houseful of hangers-on. The car salesman, played by Omar Benson Miller, is immediately the most compelling: We find him slightly overweight, watching what appears to be a TV special about head injuries, talking to his wife about getting work, and starting a family. He tells the world he doesn’t miss the field and is done with that part of his life, though we can already tell he still feels the pull of the pigskin.

Ballers wouldn’t be much of anything without Johnson, whose boundless charisma radiates from every pore and provides an endlessly compelling screen presence. But it isn’t just a series of smiles and muscle flexes, as the writing offers a pretty clear-eyed look at what pro football life is like off the field. Though they are often perceived as over-affluent crybabies, professional athletes are often exploited, especially in the NFL, where the average career lasts a shade over three years, contracts are not guaranteed, and retired players are forced to face debilitating, life-altering injuries without any financial or emotional assistance from their employers. Though Ballers doesn’t attack these things explicitly (this is a comedy, after all), all these ideas lurk in the background, and the fact that those issues (along with problems with domestic violence) were a huge part of the last football season make it instantly a show of our times.

Many critics have been quick to dismiss Ballers as some sort of extension of Entourage. Although I was not one of them, it is a fair surface observation: the show is produced by Steven Levinson, who also worked on Entourage, and there are a lot of fancy cars, lavish parties, and a cast of mostly dudes. Heck, the first episode features a major plot point wherein a player has sex with a stripper in a bathroom at a club. But Ballers is too funny and has too much potential to dismiss. And if all else fails, the Rock will flash his smile and make everything all right.