At one point in Sunday night’s season opener of HBO’s “Ballers,” lead sports agent Spencer Strasmore (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) takes business partner Joe Krutel (Rob Corddry) to a spot below the Vincent Thomas Bridge in San Pedro.
Strasmore explains how this was the place where his older brother, a onetime USC quarterback headed for fame but derailed by the NCAA, ended his life with a tragic leap.
“That’s pretty heavy, even for me,” Krutel says, trying to break the tension. “And I learned how to cremate my wife on a do-it-yourself website.”
One man’s tragedy is another man’s opportunity for wisecracking relief.
That may have been the reliable rhythm in the first three seasons of the premium cable channel’s series that wants to be a dramatic comedy with a sports-based foundation. But Season 4 has a tougher challenge, with nine episodes that weave some defiant, hard-hitting situations up against stretches of absurdity while making Los Angeles the new playground for ego-stroking, wish-driven activity.
Following a season in which Strasmore and Krutel navigated the NFL’s move from Oakland to Las Vegas — which, surprise, actually happened in real life — Southern California might want to brace itself for more foreshadowing, even if sometimes it feels we’re having shade thrown at us in the process.
Based on where this season takes us, we’re not sure if we should be wary of (a) another round of NCAA sanctions for USC based on shady recruiting, all related to the attempt to cash in on a Trojans regional sports network; (b) the Rams dealing with blowback from perhaps signing a free-agent receiver who is sympathetic to players kneeling for the national anthem; and (c) racial tension at a Huntington Beach surfing championship created by an African American athlete who doesn’t want to be commercially or culturally branded as the Jackie Robinson of his sport.
Maybe there should be a warning on this season: Meaningful objectives may be larger than they appear.
Rob Weiss, one of nearly a dozen executive producers for the “Ballers” franchise along with Mark Wahlberg and Peter Berg, says the chance to indulge his love of extreme sports here in Southern California is incentive enough to move the show’s home from Miami.
“It’s as much about expanding the story and actual scope of things as it is coming to a beautiful place like Southern California,” said Weiss, who directed two episodes and, with series creator Stephen Levinson, co-wrote the first four that set the direction of Season 4.
Not to mention: HBO gets millions more in tax credit from the California Film Commission by having the show tape the last two seasons in L.A. instead of Florida.
As Hollywood often distorts reality for the sake of time and storytelling, “Ballers” will compromise reality with enough fantasy so the viewer, accepting this isn’t a documentary, can roll with some of the truth-stretching to get a sense of how things happen in the sports business world.
But one really wonders if, as happens in Episode 5, someone like the Rock’s character can march into the El Segundo offices at DirecTV and demand his little Surf Network get better real estate on the menu near Fox Sports 1 and NBCSN.
“I’m sure your computer geek experts can just type on the keyboard and move me down the line,” Strasmore tells DirecTV’s people in the distribution and acquisitions department.
(Listen, while you’re there, see if you can get them to add SportsNet LA. If the writers were plugged in, that would have been a great line of dialogue to drop in there.)
When Strasmore decides on the spot he’s going to create a USC channel, and with it deliver a highly sought recruit to the Trojans’ program, on top of giving the kid a cut of the business transaction, you can pretty much see how this will not end well.
Viewers again aren’t sure whether this is cringeworthy or binge-worthy. The déjà vu is too uncomfortable — especially since the USC-San Pedro suicide reference hits close to home, considering how Trojans kicker Mario Danelo died from a fall off the cliffs of Point Fermin in early 2007.
“We’re not trying to say this is how things go at USC, but I feel it could happen anywhere in the country,” Weiss said. “We always try to stay ahead of the curve with our production and never try to follow up with a ‘torn from the headlines’ script. We try to lead and speculate.”
The same goes for the Rams’ story line as the team’s new GM, Charles Greane (Omar Benson Miller), wrestles with ways to fit into L.A. glamour while making his team identify with the neighborhood that surrounds the new Inglewood stadium.
Cameos can become visual treats as well as give the story lines credibility, but the brief pop-ins here by Jared Goff, Tony Hawk, Laird Hamilton, Kelly Slater and Randy Couture are more punchlines than punching up the narrative.
Yet, an over-the-top character played by Russell Brand messing with the firm’s buy-in with his Sports X company is constantly juxtaposed to some of the important things in motion here with Strasmore’s internal struggles.
But then, isn’t extreme sports kind of last generational news? ESPN took the X Games out of L.A. years ago. Focusing on Southern California’s burgeoning eSports industry would have been more cutting edge.
Though this season “has gravity in a lot of ways, whether it’s political and social undertones, we also want to have fun because that’s what people have come to expect,” Weiss said. “I really hope they just enjoy the ride of it, but also appreciate how we try to pivot and give a little more depth in certain places.”
3:07 p.m.: This article was updated throughout with additional details and commentary. It was originally published at 5 a.m.