HBO finds the humor in 'Ballers,' 'Brink'
Suddenly, the laugh's on HBO.
After a few fallow years, the premium service is on a bit of a comedy roll. It just wrapped up first-rate seasons for Veep and Silicon Valley, two highly deserving Emmy contenders. And if Sunday's newcomers Ballers and The Brink aren't at that level just yet, both show promise — and both are welcome summer additions.
Created by Entourage's Stephen Levinson and directed by Friday Night Lights' Peter Berg, Ballers (10 ET/PT, * * * out of four) stars Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson as Spencer, a pro-football star turned investment counselor. Unfortunately, he doesn't have many investors to counsel, which rankles his boss (a typically good Rob Corddry) — who tells him to go out and sign some of his football friends.
Which is exactly what Spencer, a loyal, bright, sharp-witted man with a few anger issues, sets out to do. One of his first targets is Ricky (John David Washington), a talented but irresponsible player with dangerous tastes in women and tweets. But an even larger target is Vernon (Donovan Carter), a rising star being bled dry by hangers-on, including his current manager Reggie (London Brown).
You could say Ballers is Entourage with African-American football players in place of white would-be actors, and you wouldn't be far off. But considering how few TV series there are about black men, and how vastly different their milieus, you'd also be stressing what unites the two shows when what matters more are the differences. What's worse, you'd be seriously undervaluing Johnson, whose imposing physicality, outsized masculine charm and easy way with a line gracefully pull us into Ballers' world.
Where Ballers fits with the low-key, slice-of-life comedy style of Silicon Valley, The Brink (10:30 ET/PT, * * * stars out of four) is more in tune with the exaggerated spoof style of Veep. Created by Roberto Benabib and Kim Benabib, the show is a broader Dr. Strangelove for our times, as a crisis in Pakistan threatens to bring on World War III.
Standing between civilization and disaster are two men, Alex Talbot (Jack Black), a low-level bureaucrat with little on his mind but women, and Secretary of State Walter Larson (Tim Robbins) — a smart man who is just as easily sexually distracted. They work their way through a farce that includes wandering pilots, missing schoolgirls, an easily led president (Esai Morales) and a Pakistani driver (Aasif Mandvi) who just wants to find a way to keep his family safe while stocking up on snacks before the next coup.
The show may err toward silliness, but the cast is uniformly good, and every so often a wry jab at American parochialism or some funny throwaway line will catch you by happy surprise. And while it's cynical at times, it isn't bleak: For all their faults, Alex and Walter are trying to do the right thing.
Anyone looking for laughs should consider watching them try.