Ballers May Be the Closest We’ll Get to Seeing the Real Dwayne JohnsonPhoto: Jeff Daly/HBO TV Features Ballers
If you’re not already on board the Ballers train, nobody would blame you for not knowing it was entering its fourth season. Four seasons? Since when? Thinking about it too hard is like mapping a chronology for Hermione Granger as she Time-Turned her way into the Over-Achiever Hall of Fame, of which Ballers star Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is also a member. Appearing in another full season of TV seems impossible because Johnson released three feature action films between last season and now: Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, Rampage, and Skyscraper, which made a combined $1.65 billion.
And yet, Johnson only seems to live in that success on the small screen. Despite what his careers in the ring and on film have established, Johnson’s TV persona is far closer to the moneymen than the meatheads. That’s because, despite the Entourage-esque success porn of Ballers, it operates mostly as a response to Johnson’s predominant popular image. In fact, it’s perhaps the closest we’ll get to watching the real Dwayne Johnson—at least, Dwayne Johnson as he sees himself—navigate his life.
In his hyper-lucrative movies, we never get a glimpse of Johnson that goes deeper than the surface: His physicality is everything. The whole joke of Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is about body-swapping and its misalignment with high school stereotypes—and of course the skinny, scared nerd finds himself inside the Large McHuge adventurer known as Smolder Bravestone. Skyscraper and Central Intelligence are the “but” movies: As in, something movie studios may ordinarily see as an obstacle, “but” he’s still out here kicking ass. The former sees him embrace a prosthetic leg, while the latter applauds the former fat kid. But both end up with Johnson whipping fools.
What if he’s not a government agent? Even then, if he’s on the big screen, he’s following the same rules set by that muscle-bound star image. Though he might be a primatologist in Rampage, having Johnson in your movie dictates that the primatologist also used to be a U.S. Army Special Forces soldier who can kick Jason Bourne levels of ass. There are no scientists that lift weights recreationally on the big screen. According to Hollywood, no matter what your character’s purpose in the film, if you look like you could clean and press two of your co-stars at the same time, you’ll likely have to fight them.
Ballers is how Johnson responds to the cinematic paradigm affecting beefy boys (with his character) while he actively enacts its change (as a producer). Johnson cultivates his physique like some curate their high-end wardrobe, using it as a visual business card that inspires confidence in him as a leading man—either in front of the camera or at the head of a brand. He’s fifth on Forbes’ top-paid celebrity list for 2018, behind Judge Judy and George Clooney but ahead of the entire band U2. He’s become a social media mogul while still flashing a grin and getting the girl. Ballers combines those skills, subtracts smacking baddies, and surrounds Johnson with other athletes, whose presence normalizes his physique, impossible as it may seem: In it, the actor demystifies himself, while simultaneously revealing the self-image he hopes to promote for the rest of his career.
Johnson plays ex-football pro Spencer Strasmore, who becomes a success in retirement by transitioning to financial management. He helps old cronies and current stars, alongside his business partner, Joe (Rob Corddry). Corddry’s role here is comic relief—on top of some moral instigation—but, unlike that of Johnson’s film co-stars, Johnson has the intellect, the right disposition, and the body. Corddry’s just along for the ride, an audience surrogate ogling Johnson for all the reasons the actor wants to be ogled.
Corddry plays an outsider, though not like Kevin Hart’s tiny Central Intelligence character, whose job is primarily to emphasize the difference in scale between Hart and Johnson—basically the punch line of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s first comedy, Twins, with Danny DeVito. Ballers flips this humorous dissonance between body size and expectations (big, dumb jocks; small, savvy nerds), giving its lead an extreme body (he literally played Hercules) without treating it as such. Johnson is filmed in conservative medium and close-up shots in which he conspicuously doesn’t overwhelm the frame, focusing our attention on what the series does treat as extraordinary: Spencer’s personality.
Spencer, like Johnson, cares about optics. He’s shown as the pinnacle of humanity—not only is he nominated to the Hall of Fame ballot in the first episode of Season Four, the phrase “superpower” is applied, and he speaks out against workplace harassment. But he’s still human. It’s here that you can see the chinks in Johnson’s armor, the bags beneath the always-smizing eyes. That’s because Ballers’ dedication to its star is so great that it’ll give up anything (drama, say, or comedy) to fulfill its goal of reverence in pursuit of redefinition.
That’s less like the hyper-macho leading men Johnson plays on screen and more like the intense self-help personification of Johnson himself. “Benevolent world domination” is a phrase that gets bandied around when Johnson is involved, and the premiere of Ballers’ fourth season is a 30-minute prayer meeting in which Johnson’s the shrine. He’s the smiling god who walks among the common people (the line cook, the valet, the hostess), unmistakably set apart in a meritocracy of his own making. He is loved and deferred to by everyone, more regal now than a Scorpion King ever was.
Even Spencer’s storylines in Ballers are the humblebrags of drama. The sacrifices he makes for himself and others to succeed are a great strain on his mental well-being: He’s a martyr to ambition, not merely its hulking enactor. The series’ R-rated trappings, at least where Johnson is involved, are barely cruder than the (for some reason) mandatory F-bomb in a PG-13 film. Johnson watches Russell Brand waggle his naked hippy ass on a beach and Corddry take a single hit from a blunt, but he’s always the bemused adult in the room.
He sips wine and makes toasts, wryly watching L.A. happen around him (after venturing from Miami at the start of this season). He doesn’t have to be the center of attention, nor does he want to. Like the real Johnson, Spencer has moved up in the world, knowing that real power comes from being a step or two removed from the action the people see. As The Rock continues to dominate the big screen, Johnson is making himself into the mogul he (and Ballers) perceives himself to be, three movies and a TV season at a time.
Season Four of Ballers premieres Sunday, August 12 at 10 p.m. on HBO
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.