The Opposite Issues Hurting ‘Ballers’ and ‘True Detective’

by Kolby Solinsky

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To say you’re disappointed in something doesn’t mean you don’t like it. It doesn’t mean you’re not rooting for it, whatever it is, to work out or turn itself around. All it means is, “Huh, I guess I wish there was more.”

Sometimes, disappointment can mean something was great. Like when it hits 11 p.m. on Christmas day and you’re disappointed its over – which really means, Christmas was great and you don’t want it to end. But no offence to the 26th. And sometimes, disappointment is a backhanded compliment. Take this year’s lineup of ‘new’ entries into HBO’s historically superior Sunday lineup – I put new inside quotations because True Detective is a second-year show with a new cast, setting, and plot. In fact, the plot is so fresh, most of us watching aren’t even sure what it is.

There are murders here, rapes there, with creepy hippies and corrupt politicians on the lining. The darkest traits of our main characters are sort of just alluded to – Taylor Kitsch’s denial of his true nature(s) and whatever he did or stole in Afghanistan, Colin Farrell’s compromised and criminally threaded cop career, and Rachel McAdams’ reason for being so good with a knife – but we never see them. Not like we saw, very graphically, what killed Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson’s relationship in Season 1.

In Season 2, there are little reveals of obvious details, of course: we know Farrell’s divorced, that he killed her attacker, and that he’s worked with Vince Vaughn’s gangster for a long time. We now know McAdams was raped when she was a child, when she grew up in a sexual predator-stuffed commune.

But True Detective has been given an hour and seems confused of how to fill it.

I like this line from Emily Stephens, in her review for The AV Club: “It’s plodding where it needs to be fleet and vague where it needs to be precise.”

I was one of the few out there who loved this season’s very panned pilot, because I sort of thought the misleads and misfires – the crappy dialogue, the over-seriousness, the lack of anything close to what McConaughey and Harrelson provided on a comedic or philosophical front last year – were intentional. I thought the show’s pivots were setting us up for some sort of inside-out long con, that just maybe this whole Southern California dystopic experiment was aware of how many fans it was shedding. Maybe, just maybe, HBO was burning the bandwagon on purpose, and then they’d torture those fair-weather fans with a terrific run to the finale… like how the Miami Heat wouldn’t let their fans back in once LeBron and crew came back in that Game 6.

You never leave a game early, fans. Never.

Instead, the pilot and last night’s sixth episode – titled ‘Church in Ruins’ – have been all I’ve enjoyed so far. The shootout from two weeks back was entertaining stuff, but the fact it was so entertaining made it almost more infuriating. Like, really, you’ve made me snooze through four hours of TV and you had this gunfight in your arsenal the whole time?

So then compare True Detective‘s issues with Ballers‘ issues, the other new show I’m breaking down here.

True Detective Season 2 – Trailer (HBO)

Whereas True Detective is an hour long and came into 2015 with one helluva runway, especially after 2014’s critically acclaimed Louisiana series, Ballers has had to cram its bursting bits into 25 minutes. The end credits roll just when things are getting good, and the show has so-far spent half-seasons on storylines (adultery, contract disputes) that could have been told in 20 minutes on Game of Thrones. Meanwhile, the better and bigger themes – concussions and life after football, bankruptcy, the corruption of celebrities and their handlers – are hardly told. And they can’t be told in just half-an-hour, even without commercials.

And there was no runway here – Ballers didn’t premiere with anything besides a few eye rolls and chuckles, thanks to Mark Wahlberg’s fizzled-out previous work with HBO. All you’d hear when the promos started rolling was, Oh, great. Ballers: It’s Entourage but with football players. Just what I need – more bro humour and stripper jokes.

And yeah, there’s plenty of that. But what’s most disappointing about Ballers is that it probably has a real shot to make a great show about a dream lifestyle and the pitfalls of it all – of fame, of playing a sport that requires 300-pound men to collide head-first at full speed, of how fast money disappears when you’re only buying Ferraris. Is it shallow stuff? Of course. But it really happens and there’s a huge segment of the American populace ready to eat that up.

We can’t get mad at show runners for creating something that attracts the immature when there are so many people out there who are willingly immature – think about how big fantasy football is or how successful ESPN’s 30 for 30 series has been. And really, with all the crap and conversation that’s surrounded the NFL over the past couple years – rampant domestic abuse and the league’s subsequent lack of giving a damn, for example – wouldn’t it be pretty easy to make a timely, semi-important show about that stuff? Especially on HBO, a network that stands by itself and always has.

But there’s no criticism of the league or its culture here. It’s a commercial for the NFL. It’s a Hallmark movie with naked women, f-words, and gold chains.

Entourage had a chance to do something great, too. It had that chance despite the limited skills of the show’s original two leads – Adrian Grenier and Kevin Connolly, who gave way to Jeremy Piven, Kevin DIllon, and Jerry Ferrara. The first two seasons of Entourage were a well-constructed and intentionally over-the-top window into a Hollywood everyone gawks at behind windows and People magazines. The show’s sexist nature, while certainly more condoned in 2004 than it would have been now, was a plot necessity – if that’s what it’s like, then there’s no sense in pretending these guys are all equal-opportunity employers.

By the end, of course, Entourage had disintegrated into a sloppy mess of cameos, spilled champagne, raining dollar bills, and a way-too-forced cocaine addiction. The movie was panned because it wasn’t just completely unnecessary, but also because it couldn’t read the room. Our tastes have changed over the past decade; we don’t enjoy watching inconceivably rich people spend money anymore, and we don’t feel bad for them when they spend too much. Our culture has gone from being wide-eyed and in love with celebrity to being jaded and sensitive.

Ballers, I worry, is already on the same road to a forgettable fade-out. Except when we look back at the first season, we won’t see a show with potential that squandered it – we’ll see a show with potential that didn’t know what that potential looked like.

Although then again, maybe that’s its genius… can you think of a better metaphor for an NFL star who blows through his retirement fund than that?

HBO Official Trailer: Ballers starring Dwayne Johnson