Grandly celebrating the mythical macho trifecta of sports, guns and chicks, both are as testosterone laden as one can get without actually being sperm
BY HUGH ELLIOTT
There was a time when HBO was known for its more “feminine” and emotional shows, “Six Feet Under” and “Sex and The City” were two of the most popular. Hell, the whole spin on “The Sopranos” was that we were seeing the softer side of criminal killers. To cut to the chase, one word sums it up: “Girls.” Apparently it’s goodbye to all that.
Two new “comedies” premiered on HBO last week: “Ballers” stars Dwayne Johnson aka The Rock, and “The Brink” stars Jack Black.. In “Ballers” Johnson plays ex-football player Spencer Strasmore who now wanders the Earth, spreading his muscle-y wisdom to other former jocks. Drugs and chicks abound. In “The Brink” Jack Black portrays low-level manager Alex Talbot at the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan who becomes embroiled in the country’s war. There are drugs and chicks aplenty. You could get jock itch just watching these shows.
The infusion of movie stars into television series can work well for everyone involved. The show itself gets some instant cachet and attention, and the star is afforded an opportunity to reinvent themselves and gather critical acclaim à la pulp fiction.” When it works on TV, as it did with Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey on AMC’s “True Detective,” the results are beyond impressive. We’re captivated when these icons appear intentionally bereft, as if we are seeing the “real actor” – not just the characters they sell in films. Our empathy jumps off the charts.
Dwayne Johnson could have used this sort of makeover. Until now, his movies have dutifully portrayed heroic blow-up doll “Ahnold.2” bulldozing his way through filmic disaster porn like “San Andreas.” In many ways his persona has been an extension of his wrestling past. Family friendly and painfully noble, he’s a bruiser with a heart of gold. That’s nice but everyone secretly loves the bad boy; so on paper, “Ballers” may have seemed the perfect escape from such low-level dullness. The Rock could basically just YOLO the hell out and do drugs, curse and bang everybody to show us he’s moving on. Think Miley Cyrus with muscles. Instead, he earnestly fumbles through his lines before his Macy’s balloon of a body bounces off to the next scene. Rob Corddry is thrown into the mix as his crazed boss, and injects some manic “Wolf of Wall Street” vibe. Frankly, I’d rather watch whatever show Corddry thinks he’s on.
“Ballers” comes off as an also-ran “Fast and Furious” flick, but “The Brink” faces an even bigger identity crisis. At times it wants to be “VEEP,” especially when Tim Robbins (“Mystic River”) drops the mic in his role as the secretary of state. It’s a pretty fun, IDGAF performance complete with hookers, bondage and booze in the Situation Room, wherein Robbins oozes next-level Selina Myer insincerity. Great – you may be thinking – I love some “Doctor Strangelove”-esque crazy. But the other half of the show is set in war-torn Pakistan and replete with waterboarding, which is where things take a turn for even darker than expected. It’s a total toss-up between “too soon” and “just not funny.”
Like The Rock, Jack Black’s comedic shtick also depends on his body; in Black’s case however his dad bod guarantees he doesn’t have to move much. He’s played this character before, the nebbish whose wisecracking ways hide his inner sensitivity. There are scenes – like the waterboarding – wherein one can only assume that Black intended to demonstrate his acting range without being upstaged by a giant CGI ape. But, man, we miss the ape.
Why HBO has thrown these two mediocre guy shows at us now is a puzzle. “Ballers” is brought to you by the creator of “Entourage,” which was admittedly a timely success back when people still said “bromance” without a hint of irony. Another show glamorizing dude culture must have seemed like a good idea at the time, sating a want the new “Entourage” movie would create. “People are gonna want more of that!” mustache-twirling studio execs tittered. Oops.
Culture has shifted, and fewer and fewer people are acquiescing to the allure of the boy’s club. Neither “Ballers” nor “The Brink” has one major female character. Comedies about women on HBO tend to succeed when they counter cultural expectations, but the male-centric comedies on HBO – yes, I’m also talking to you, “Looking” – work hard not to rock the boat. From the network that brought us the complexity of “The Comeback,” it’s a letdown. We expect better from HBO than the Esquire Channel with bigger muscles.
Hugh Elliott is a writer and artist living in California who rarely uses his Twitter handle @wehogayman.