The last time a network created a TV series about the National Football League, or a decent facsimile, the NFL threatened ESPN over “Playmakers.” ESPN got scared, and junked the series for fear of further upsetting the Empire.
That unflattering TV series came four years after Academy Award-winning director Oliver Stone cranked out “Any Given Sunday” in 1999, which was a more unflattering look at pro football. That movie was an exaggerated NFL version from Stone’s hyperbolic mind.
Hollywood is now back in the NFL business; the league basically co-sponsored the league-friendly “Draft Day” last year, starring Kevin Costner. The movie looked good but was a bomb, despite Costner’s charm for sports movies.
Now the NFL is confronted with a pair of new releases its PR paranoid stuff will surely loathe: the Will Smith movie “Concussion” is scheduled for a ‘15 release. HBO has “Ballers”, a new TV series starring Dwyane Johnson. The series premiere is June 21.
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Johnson plays Spencer Strassmore, an ex-NFL player trying to enter the brutal world of sports agents and advisers to the current crew of hard-partying, financially irresponsible young adults who are surrounded by hot women, booze, drugs, and play football. The NFL certainly did not sign off on this.
When it comes to “Ballers,” think Jerry McGuire on HGH only with considerably more sex, nudity and drug use. The show is well produced and full of hot, sexy bodies but at least through three episodes it fails to connect.
Directed by Peter Berg (”Friday Night Lights”), the first three episodes create some fairly believable story lines that range from cliche to more cliche. Football fans will be well versed in these stories which range from the ex-player struggling with retirement, the current player looking for a second chance, and the other player trying to land a new contract while juggling his family that can’t spend his money fast enough.
Johnson may not be the second coming of Jack Nicholson, but he does have screen presence, and he certainly looks the part of an NFL player. The rest of the cast includes mostly obscure actors and actresses. Veteran character actor Rob Corddry is good as Johnson’s boss in a private equity firm that is looking to land players as high dollar clients.
At least after three episodes, “Ballers” is OK. It’s like most of Berg’s work - it’s not bad, but there is something missing. Johnson is good as the guy trying to do right by his potential clients and steer them away from making the mistakes he made in his career, and from blowing all of their money on girls, cars and family and friends.
The lifestyle depicted in the show is excess, greed, money, groupies, drug use, and a lot of other things the NFL would prefer not make the headlines.
When it comes to non-fiction, the NFL trash highlighted in “Ballers” usually makes for good reading. When it comes to fiction, for whatever the reason, such football trash historically never finds an audience. Probably because art imitating life isn’t as good as the real thing.
Mac Engel, 817-390-7760