Dating back to his big-screen debut as the Scorpion King in The Mummy Returns, Dwayne Johnson has played gods both literal (Hercules) and metaphorical (in Furious 7, his character Hobbs flexes himself out of a cast). Even his own celebrity persona, The Rock, with his near-impossible muscle definition and over-the-top charisma, seems superhuman.
(Editor's note: Some spoilers ahead for the second season of Ballers.)
So it's no surprise that the majority of his roles have seen him swooping in to save someone, be it Ashley Judd's children (Tooth Fairy) or the entire Western seaboard (San Andreas). Yet that's what makes his HBO series Ballers unique: In a way, it's Johnson's first time playing a realistic, relatable human.
For the uninitiated — or those who have a strong gag reflex when it comes to the Stephen Levinson oeuvre, he of the divisive Entourage — on Ballers, Johnson plays Spencer Strasmore, an NFL pro turned money manager, living, working and partying (but mostly partying) in Miami. Unlike the heroes Johnson plays on the silver screen, Strasmore is a mess of a man: bankrupt, battling a nasty addiction to prescription pills and, frankly, not very good at his job.
In 2015, Ballers premiered to massive success. Not only was it a smash hit for HBO — the show was their most-watched comedy since Hung in 2009 — it was also a welcome breath of diversity on the premium cable service, which also airs the mostly-if-not-all white comedies Girls, Veep and Silicon Valley.
During the show's first season, things mostly worked out for our protagonist. But in the second season, premiering Sunday, the stakes are higher — and it's not immediately clear if Strasmore has what it takes to rise to the challenge.
In the pilot episode, Ballers set up that Strasmore has no money, but then the show largely ignored it. This season, the show finally revisits his lack of funds. The man of a thousand impeccably tailored suits made a bad investment under the guidance of a man named Andre Allen, played with a gleeful Machiavellianism by Andy Garcia. Strasmore is making it his mission to take him down — through business. The characters on Ballers are often making broad statements about business. "These days, my dreams are all about deals and dollars," Strasmore says in the first season.
As Strasmore, Johnson subverts our expectations of a Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson character. In the second season's first five episodes, he starts and stumbles, falls into traps laid, and finds himself bested and overwhelmed. Watching Johnson attempt to reconcile humiliation and defeat with the swagger that naturally drips off him, glistening like a post-cardio sweat, is totally new for him. Johnson is a movie star of supernova-level wattage, and it is a hell of a time to watch him apply that to something a little less broad than, say, G.I. Joe.
In Ballers, it's delightful to watch Johnson, a man of superhuman musculature, attempt to do everyday things. During filming, he repeatedly joked on Instagram about not being able to fit into the expensive sports cars that are peppered throughout Ballers. It's like watching a superhero try to be Clark Kent — and it adds to his characterization of Strasmore as a man who outsizes himself.
Having introduced us to the world of Ballers last year, this season, the show is building on that base and deepening its characters. (The second episode introduces an equal pay C-plot that is somehow both laughable and appreciated.) But it's Johnson who's doing most of the heavy lifting. As mentioned earlier, his previously unexplained financial woes are coming out front and center, as is his addiction to Vicodin, another characterization that was shown but never spoken about in the show's first season. There is also the possibility that Strasmore experiences serious physical side effects from his years in the NFL.
You'd be right to be wary to trust a show that is deeply pro-NFL; all of Ballers' characters are connected to professional football in some way — even Johnson, who is also a producer, once had NFL aspirations. It remains to be seen how well Ballers will handle sensitive stories like pill mills and the lasting effects of slamming your body into another's for money. Yet his performance is worth the investment. He's good — funny and charming as ever, but subtle too, perhaps the one muscle The Rock doesn't often get to flex.
If none of this convinces you, viewers got to see the Rock's ass in season one — and he's promised more this go-round.