A Tribute To 'Ballers', HBO's Comfort Food Comedy Few Would Admit To Loving

There's something to say about consistency in television. How many mighty shows have we seen fall in their final seasons? Too many, but for a show to stay true to its self, evolve, and entertain for many years, that's a feat. It's an accomplishment HBO's Ballers pulled off through its five-year run on HBO, where it was the cable network's most popular 30-minute comedy, and yet not the most popular comedy to talk about. It wasn't ever a show to tweet about every Sunday anyway, but in spite of generally solid reviews for a solid show, there wasn't much love for a Dwayne Johnson performance that deserved more attention. But Ballers was one of Senator Elizabeth Warren's faves for good reason.

Dwayne Johnson Falls Back Down to Earth

We love nothing more than basking in the glory of Johnson playing a monster-sized hero saving the world. Playing the savior is what he does best, and few actors are as believable as him doing it. In Ballers, his big-screen persona is nowhere in sight. Yes, he still drips sweat and charisma, but he's not always the charming good guy on Ballers. Spencer Strasmore has heroic qualities, but he's so far removed from the typical Dwayne Johnson hero. He doesn't have all the answers. He's as hard-headed when he's wrong as when he's right. And unlike a Dwayne Johnson hero, he can spend more time thinking about himself than others.

Not many people probably think during Dwayne Johnson's movies, "Now here's somebody I can finally relate to," but Spencer Strasmore is the most relatable and real character of his career. The comedy aside, Ballers is the closest we've seen him in a straight drama and not saving the globe with his bare hands. Ballers is what Johnson looks like when he gets vulnerable. The beloved movie star but arguably underrated actor — which is common — has never been as revealing and as flawed as he is in Ballers. There's something always engaging about a movie star of The Rock's stature play a guy stumbling and falling, doubting and questioning himself like the rest of us.

How many other movies stars at Johnson's level have taken on a similar, image-defining role for five years on an HBO comedy? Not many, but then again, Johnson is the only person who does what he does. Almost every role on planet Earth can be filled by no shortage of actors, but nobody can fill Johnson-sized shoes. The actor's charm and screen presence are untouchable, and we got five seasons worth of it with Ballers. It's a different kind of charisma from Johnson, too, that shows more depth and range: the actor is just as watchable in contemplative silence as he is delivering one-liners in one of his fantasy movies.

Dwayne Johnson's How-to-Guide to Success

There's a lot about Spencer Strasmore I've always imagined Johnson identified with, making it in my eyes, his most personal role. He played the former Miami Dolphins player for five years, after all, so it's the closest we've ever gotten to a character of his, and maybe even Johnson himself. Throughout the entire show, it's impossible not to see parallels between Strasmore and Johnson. Based on his long-lasting, evergrowing career as an actor and businessman and his influential Instagram, the actor and college football player is always hungry, similar to the Strasmore. It's why they're both admirable, even when Strasmore is at his worst: they dream hard, work harder. If they run into a wall, they either punch through it or climb over it, even if they still fail in the end.

Strasmore is all passion and drive, and those character traits are always authentic coming from Dwayne Johnson. Even when Ballers gets silly, Johnson keeps it real. There's nothing Strasmore says or does that isn't believable because of Johnson and consistent writing. How many times have we seen one of our favorite characters on a show act, in our view, out of character? Never happens with Johnson's performance, and again, there's something to be said for consistency when a character remains understandable and empathetic from start to finish.

The final season has Johnson talking to the camera all about wins and losses and hard-earned lessons. At first, it's maybe a little out of place for the tone of the show, even though it evolved quite a bit over five seasons, but as the Strasmore interview progresses through the season, Johnson waxing poetic about the beauties of success and failure becomes highly listenable. Johnson is so innately watchable that, no matter the quality of a storyline on Ballers, he always keeps the show a reliable crowd-pleaser.

More Losses than Wins

The Entourage comparisons were never completely fair or accurate. Not every conflict is resolved in Ballers, fights aren't always won, and there isn't always gold at the end of a long, arduous rainbow. Seasons wrap up in crushing defeat sometimes. We expect movie stars to win in movies, so seeing a megastar like Johnson losing felt new, especially on television. Yes, Strasmore is almost always wearing suits that'd make Tom Ford blush, but he's always struggling, personally and professionally.

The fun of the show isn't all the eye candy and banter between great character actors, although that's a part of its appeal, but it's about how Strasmore tackles his problems. More often than not, the drama is as entertaining as the comedy on Ballers because Strasmore is an easy character to invest in and root for, even if he isn't always easy to like. Johnson made a lot of people care and invest in this guy and, best of all, have a blast watching him.

Johnson disappears as Strasmore while still retaining what we love about his screen-presence, which isn't an easy balance for a movie star to pull off. He makes every note of Strasmore's journey believable, especially at the end of the show. Not all of Strasmore's problems are fixed in the final episode, and he'll face greater conflicts down the line, but he's grown. He's a flawed man but a better man in the end. The finale, which successfully juggles multiple storylines, knows exactly how to say goodbye to Strasmore without cheapening what came before.

While the series often kept a light tone, it's never only about the good times. The show has a lightness to it, but the storylines and conflicts aren't always fluffy. Unlike Entourage, it doesn't glamorize its industry but instead takes some hard, critical looks at it. Most notably, the comedy takes a serious, unambiguous stance on keeling in the NFL. Over the last few years, how many shows on TV have had enough ambition to have a serious dialogue about kneeling and, obviously, come out in support of it? The final season, which even takes a well-deserved knock against New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, manages to continue to explore serious issues on and off-the-field without losing all the fun.

How Did it All End? Not in Tragedy 

True to his crowd-pleaser nature, Johnson goes out smiling in the series finale, literally stepping in daylight in the final shot. It concludes with brighter days but still more struggles to come for Strasmore, now the owner of the Kansas City Chiefs. He's "a player's owner," as he wanted and promised, but the finale shows that'll come with serious costs. While Strasmore besting the NFL and his fellow team owners may come off a tad unrealistic, the show is still about escapism. It doesn't always have to be real.

As enjoyable as it is to watch Johnson's struggle through five-seasons, who doesn't want to see him beaming with pride and victory when the final credits roll? Johnson and Strasmore earn it. He was a once selfish character whose greatest accomplishment, in the end, is looking out for the interests of others at his own expense. Simple but effective, which can't be said for more than a few endings of more critically acclaimed shows.

The happy ending fits and rings true, especially for the two bros at the heart of Ballers, Strasmore and his former BFF and business partner, Joe (Rob Corddry), who transformers from every office's worst nightmare to everyone's favorite boss. The two are going through a breakup in the final season and don't reunite until the end, which is the only serious problem with the final season; it's an instance where a conflict ran too long.

When Strassmore and Joe hug it out and make their peace, and when Corddry and Johnson are finally back in a room together, it's a reminder of both what's missing in the final season and their dynamite chemistry in previous seasons. They're a great, oddball pairing that makes each other better and more entertaining. The show is ending in the right place after five seasons, but if there's one thing I'll miss about Ballers, it's Corddry and Johnson cracking jokes, dominating meetings, and partying together. They're two friends I bought, always.

Almost all of the major characters on Ballers get what they want in the finale, and that's not only acceptable but wanted out of Ballers. First and foremost, it's a comedy, a feel-good show to take your mind off life for a brisk, entertaining, and every once in a while, meaningful 30-minutes, so why not go out smiling? That's the Dwayne Johnson way after all.