‘Ballers’ hopes game plan is win­ner

The new show on HBO is try­ing to be the rare suc­cess­ful sports-themed se­ries.

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - By Greg Brax­ton

The record-break­ing rat­ings ac­com­pa­ny­ing the tsunami of re­cent sports block­busters, from the NBA Fi­nals to the Stan­ley Cup play­offs to the Triple Crown to the Floyd May­weath­erManny Pac­quiao bout, proves one of life’s most un­de­ni­able truths — Amer­ica is stricken with sports fever.

But de­spite the phe­nom­e­nal be­he­moth of live ath­let­ics on TV, it’s a whole other ball­game when it comes to the prime-time scripted arena.

Comedies and dra­mas set in the sports world dur­ing the last few decades have not had win­ning records.

Among the nu­mer­ous losses are FX’s box­ing drama “Lights Out,” USA Net­work’s football com­edy “Nec­es­sary Rough­ness” and ABC’s base­ball fam­ily com­edy “Back in the Game” with James Caan. Even “The Bad News Bears,” a hit in the­aters, struck out on the small screen. And de­spite its crit­i­cal ac­claim, “Fri­day Night Lights” never drew a large au­di­ence.

The new HBO show “Ballers” seeks to end the los­ing streak, count­ing on the cur­rent sports frenzy, sharp writ­ing and the mas­sive ap­peal of for­mer wrestling star turned lead­ing man Dwayne John­son, a.k.a. “The Rock.” The se­ries, start­ing Sun­day, cen­ters on a for­mer football player (John­son) at a cross­roads be­tween get­ting his own life to­gether and be­ing a men­tor to cur­rent football play­ers caught up in the bling and ado­ra­tion of the game.

“Ballers” joins two other sports-re­lated se­ries try­ing to score points with view­ers. Starz’s “Sur­vivor’s Re­morse,” about a young bas­ket­ball star who signs a mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar con­tract and moves with his fam­ily to At­lanta, has moved into its sec­ond sea­son (LeBron James is an ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer). And DirecTV is tak­ing its chances with “King­dom,” which is an­chored in mixed mar­tial arts.

HBO is putting heavy mus­cle be­hind “Ballers,” aware that se­ries an­chored in sports are not al­ways slam dunks.

“We went in know­ing this is a high bar,” says Michael Lom­bardo, pres­i­dent of pro­gram­ming for HBO. “Given the amount of time sports spends in the col­lec­tive con­scious­ness of this coun­try, it’s been an area that peo­ple have been less suc­cess­ful in min­ing on a fic­tional level.”

Although HBO’s “East­bound & Down” and FX’s fan­tasy football romp “The League” have de­voted fol-

low­ers, many oth­ers have wound up in the loss col­umn.

Ca­su­al­ties in the last few decades in­clude “Play­mak­ers,” ESPN’s 2003-04 drama about a fic­tional football team (the NFL was openly crit­i­cal of the por­trayal of drug use, in­fi­delity, racism and ho­mo­pho­bia on the show, which lasted 10 episodes), CBS’ base­ball se­ries “Club­house” and HBO’s horse rac­ing drama “Luck.”

Robert Thompson, di­rec­tor of the Bleier Cen­ter for Tele­vi­sion and Pop­u­lar Cul­ture at Syra­cuse Univer­sity, said scripted se­ries just can’t com­pete with the ac­ces­si­bil­ity and adren­a­line of live sports.

“There are lots of great sports movies,” he said. “It’s not hard to tell these sto­ries in two hours, but it’s harder to do in a longer form. We’re still wait­ing for the first great sports se­ries, like ‘The West Wing’ was the first great se­ries about pol­i­tics.”

Robert Wuhl, who starred in and pro­duced “Arliss,” a HBO se­ries cen­tered on a pro sports agent that be­came known for its cameos of fa­mous ath­letes, says the many writ­ers of sports shows do not fully de­velop char­ac­ters and sit­u­a­tions. They typ­i­cally tell their sto­ries from the point of view of the fan, “and the fan only cares about one thing,” Wuhl points out. “Win­ning and los­ing.”

“Ballers” packs more edge than most sports-re­lated se­ries. Filled with raunch, out­ra­geous be­hav­ior, de­bauch­ery, women in biki­nis and coarse lan­guage, “Ballers” plays like a re­vamp of “En­tourage” spiced with fla­vor­ings from “Arliss,” which aired on HBO from 1996 to 2002.

The pro­duc­ers of “Ballers” em­pha­size that even though the show is set in the world of sports, it is not a so­called sports se­ries. There are no big games. Even though the names of real teams are used (Mi­ami Dol­phins and Dal­las Cowboys), the ma­jor­ity of the ac­tion takes place off the field.

“It’s about the short life span of a pro player, where the highs are so high — the comps, the women, the lifestyle,” Lom­bardo says. “But the minute it ends, there’s no sec­ond act. And the show looks at how hard that is. There’s no rule book on how to deal with that. It’s the jour­ney of a man and his life af­ter football.”

Of course, “Ballers’ ” MVP is John­son, who has had a sig­nif­i­cant ca­reer af­ter wrestling. The se­ries be­gins only a few weeks af­ter the open­ing of his sum­mer earth­quake epic, “San An­dreas,” which has brought in more than $120 mil­lion do­mes­ti­cally at the box of­fice, and a few months af­ter “Fu­ri­ous 7,” which had a box-of­fice take of more than $350 mil­lion.

“Dwayne gets the sport, and he loves the sport, and he has enor­mous charisma,” Lom­bardo says, and the close tim­ing of the re­cent films and the se­ries is a clear pos­i­tive. “At the end of the day, though, in our ex­peri- ence, what that will get us is that peo­ple will be in­ter­ested in tun­ing in. What our job is will be to get peo­ple to stick with the show, and you don’t get that just with star power. You get that with view­ers be­ing en­gaged with the sto­ries and the char­ac­ters.”

Though the ex­cite­ment and glam­our of sports have of­ten been tough for TV pro­duc­ers and writ­ers to mold into scripted se­ries, some shows have ef­fec­tively uti­lized ath­let­ics as a de­vice for hu­mor or drama. ABC’s “Sports Night,” which pre- miered in 1998 and lasted two sea­sons, fo­cused on the chaotic be­hind-the-scenes dy­nam­ics of a nightly sports ca­ble news show.

“Coach,” star­ring Craig T. Nel­son as the put-upon coach of a fic­tional col­lege football team, was a viewer fa­vorite dur­ing much of the 1990s. (NBC has an­nounced it is re­viv­ing the se­ries, with Nel­son again star­ring.)

“The Game” on BET cen­tered on the women in­volved with the play­ers on a fic­tional San Diego football team.

Lack of au­then­tic­ity has been one prob­lem faced by sports-re­lated se­ries. For le­gal and prac­ti­cal con­sid­er­a­tions, fic­tional teams are used in most se­ries, dis­tanc­ing the story from re­al­ity.

“Sports doc­u­men­taries are more pop­u­lar than ever,” said Court­ney Cox, a for­mer ESPN pro­ducer. “Peo­ple don’t want to watch the fake ver­sion. When they see fic­tional team names, that’s the tip-off that it’s not real. There’s no con­nec­tion to real life.”

“Ballers,” how­ever, is set in NFL re­al­ity — the Mi­ami Dol­phins are prom­i­nent. Some of the out­ra­geous­ness on screen, in­clud­ing drug and al­co­hol use, may give league of­fi­cials pause, par­tic­u­larly be­cause the NFL is not in­volved with the pro­duc­tion.

The mak­ers of the se­ries are hope­ful that view­ers con­nect with the eu­then­ics of the hero’s emo­tional jour­ney.

“It’s not about play­ing ball, but we think football fans will love it,” Lom­bardo says. “We think football own­ers will love it.”

Jeff Daly HBO

DWAYNE JOHN­SON brings star power to the new se­ries on HBO.

Jeff Daly HBO


Dono­van Carter, right, and Lon­don Brown ap­pear in HBO’s new “Ballers.”

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