TELEVISION
Review

On the watch list: 'Ballers' and 'The Brink'

Robert Lloyd
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Television Critic
TV reviews: Dwayne Johnson tackles 'Ballers'; Jack Black enters a 'Dr. Strangelove' scenario in 'The Brink'

Two new HBO comedies premiere Sunday; each is worth a look.

"Ballers" stars Dwayne Johnson in what might be the first truly life-sized role of his career, as Spencer Strasmore, a former football star trying to make it as a Miami-based financial manager. It was created by Steve Levinson, a partner in various Mark Wahlberg projects — Wahlberg is a producer here — and although it looks at first to be a sports-world "Entourage," a horrifying thought, it proceeds to reach for something better.

Like a lot of premium cable shows, it has a kind of split personality, aiming on the one hand for a certain new-golden-age quality, while on the other giving the people what it assumes the people are paying for. It's a show about acting responsibly that makes hay from irresponsible action. And though the series' main female roles have been written as smarter than the men, it's also been front-loaded with sex scenes and jokes, and stocked with hot women with little dramatic purpose other than to be women and hot. The milieu might justify their presence, the creators might argue, but plausibility doesn't make it feel any less cheap.

A former football player himself, Johnson, whose voice is often oddly reminiscent of President Obama's, is not a great actor. But he's not a bad one, either; he sells his character despite the constant distraction of a superhero body his custom suits can't disguise. If anything, a little bit of stiffness fits the part: Spencer is a little repressed, emotionally, in denial, physically, and not entirely comfortable in his new job, working for a firm that's hired him to "monetize" his friendships with highly paid sports stars.

And he has good support. His costars include Omar Benson Miller in a wonderful turn as a former pro baller wrestling with retirement, John David Washington as a veteran player with poor impulse control and Donovan Carter as a rising star who squanders his fortune on family and friends.

It was a smart play to give Johnson, whose jokes seem meant to fall a little flat, a comedian, Rob Corddry, as a kind of inverse straight man; most of the humor in the show is under his care. Indeed, as comedies go, it seems mostly unconcerned with laughs. It's a light drama, rather, its tone akin to that of shows like "Men of a Certain Age" or the excellent "How to Make It in America," to which Levinson and Wahlberg were also attached.

Although it scrupulously includes its own quotient of rude jokes and irrelevant sex scenes, "The Brink" is a different sort of series. Its antecedents are cinematic, most obviously Stanley Kubrick's "Dr. Strangelove," another satirical farce in which outlandish characters hold the fate of the world in their hands; I don't have the figures in front of me, but this must be the first comedy in some time that proposes World War III — that old thing — as a possible outcome of the plot-driven action.

Indeed, for all its contemporary concerns and premium-cable naughtiness, there is something old-fashioned about it. It mocks the government and the military in ways that have grown familiar in the years since "Strangelove." There are what feel like deliberate nods to that film; a psychotic Pakistani general's claim that the United States has "a secret diabolical program to alter the reproductive biology of our girls and to emasculate our boys" mirrors a psychotic American general's belief, in the earlier work, that Communists are poisoning "our precious bodily fluids." But there are echoes too of "The In-Laws," Woody Allen's "Don't Drink the Water" and, for the real film scholars, "John Goldfarb, Please Come Home."

In the role of the boob upon whom greatness is thrust, Jack Black is working in an established tradition, as well. As a low-level embassy official in Islamabad whose only real connection to the country is the one who supplies him with pot — until a military coup puts him at the center of a snowballing crisis — he's a kind of turned-up-to-11 Bob Hope, a coward-hero for a generation raised on dope and porn. And his scenes with the embassy driver who becomes his partner in intrigue (Aasif Mandvi) are straight out of the mismatched-buddy-comedy playbook.

Other storylines follow the American secretary of State (Tim Robbins), an unconventional, unmanageable cool head who is used to coloring outside the lines; and Pablo Schreiber as a drug-dealing fighter pilot (vague shades of "Strangelove's" Slim Pickens) sent off to drop a bomb just as his personal life implodes.

As a comedy set in what is not just a political but also, for many, an emotional flash point, "The Brink" courts disaster. There is always a tendency to confuse the stupid things the characters say from what the authors, Roberto Benabib and Kim Benabib, themselves believe.

The series keeps generally on the right side of things by virtue of the excellence and exuberance of the performances, which add flesh where needed; by moving fast enough to keep ahead of your second thoughts; and by spreading the ridiculousness around. There are heroes and villains — smart people and idiots — on every side. Its brief is for common sense, untainted by ideology or superstition. (Some viewers may find that offensive to their ideologies, of course.) The heroes are the ones trying to avoid conflict — and this too makes it strangely old-fashioned.

It is also, in its way, warmhearted — certainly it is less icy than "Dr. Strangelove" — with affection for its characters. It wants you to like them, at least a little, and to hope that the world doesn't end, not just for the world's sake, but for theirs.

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'Ballers'

Where: HBO

When: 10 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)

'The Brink'

Where: HBO

When: 10:30 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)

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