Johnson, who starred at the U. of Miami before his wrestling/acting career, plays former NFL linebacker Spencer Strasmore, who has sought a second act beyond football by functioning as a money manager for current players. His boss, Joe (Rob Corddry), is a socially inept sort who clearly loves hanging around pro stars, and makes no bones about the fact that Spencer landed the gig only because of his perceived access to them as a former member of a very select club.
The players, meanwhile — both the current stars Spencer would like to represent, and his former teammates, dealing with life after football, and brought together by a tragedy — face an assortment of familiar problems. They range from juggling wives and girlfriends to being followed around by huge posses of friends and relatives, happily spending their money as if the spigot will never run dry despite the brevity of most pro careers. That leaves Spencer as a frequent voice of reason, trying to project an aura of success that masks some of his own financial struggles.
Nothing here is remotely new, of course, whether seen before on old movies like “North Dallas Forty” or “Playmakers,” a short-lived ESPN series the network jettisoned under pressure from the image-conscious NFL. Indeed, all Levinson (working on the premiere with director Peter Berg, who also has a small role in the show) has really done is substitute the gang from “Entourage” with African-American stars basking in the glory and headaches associated with fame and fortune, and moved the setting from L.A. to the equally bikini-friendly backdrop of Miami.
Johnson certainly brings star quality to the proceedings, and the mix of sports and male-oriented pastimes (the women here, as with “Entourage,” are generally little more than well-adorned props) should invest the show with appeal in bastions beyond traditional sitcoms. In the early going, that includes cameos by former NFL greats, like Miami’s Larry Csonka and coach Don Shula.
Yet despite knowing the turf, “Ballers” — premiering at a point when exploitation of athletes and debilitating injuries are very much in the news — isn’t savvy enough about its subject matter to leave a mark. Sure, it’s easy enough to watch, but almost wholly inconsequential, and forgotten as soon as the final gun sounds.
If HBO’s programming philosophy amounts to stitching together a quilt to satisfy different constituencies, “Ballers” is a logical patch to add, especially if the goal is to hang onto some of the men who watch the new season of “True Detective.” It’s just too bad that those responsible for this sports comedy forgot to bring their “A” game.