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Dwayne Johnson’s ‘Ballers’ is TV’s answer to the summer beach read

Updated August 11, 2018 - 12:06 pm

After three seasons and a handful of episodes of the upcoming fourth, it’s time to accept the fact that Dwayne Johnson’s “Ballers” (10 p.m. Sunday, HBO) will never be more than a dopey, mildly distracting bit of escapism.

That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Every brain can use a break. It’s just that with HBO, the home of “Game of Thrones” and “Westworld,” you tend to expect bigger, better or both.

Ostensibly a series about retired NFL star Spencer Strasmore (Johnson) starting a second career managing the money of his former colleagues, “Ballers” is basically whatever its producers, including most of the team behind “Entourage,” want it to be at any given moment.

After two seasons of struggling to sign clients, last year found Spencer and his business partner, Joe (Rob Corddry), angling to bring the Raiders to Las Vegas. Then Spencer pulled a last-minute swerve with a plea, complete with stadium financing, to keep the team in Oakland. “Moving a third team in two years is very dangerous to your brand,” he told the assembled owners. The fans in Oakland deserve to keep their team, he added, and doing so would make the owners “look like good guys instead of looking like a bunch of greedy, out of touch, old white men.”

Thanks for the vote of confidence, Spence.

In Season 4, Spencer and Joe leave their Miami sports management firm and its 200 employees — unsupervised, from the looks of things — to head to Los Angeles and buy an agency specializing in extreme sports that’s run by one of Joe’s acquaintances (Russell Brand at his Russell Brand-iest).

Why? Even Spencer has trouble processing that one. This isn’t us, he tells Joe, it’s not what we do. “Were we financial managers?” Joe responds. “Were we real estate developers?”

It’s hard to argue with that logic.

The writing on “Ballers” always has leaned toward the slapdash, but it’s declined noticeably this season.

In a scene in Sunday’s premiere, Spencer explains to Joe that he hasn’t set foot in Los Angeles since his junior year of college when his older brother, a star quarterback “for the Trojans,” jumped off a bridge there and killed himself. “Oh, yeah,” a stunned Joe says. “That rings a bell.”

A famous athlete — an athlete who shares a sport and an uncommon last name with your best friend — commits suicide in a very public way, you work with athletes for a living, and that “rings a bell”?

In the very next episode, Joe tells Spencer, “I know you better than you know yourself.”

Ya know, Joe, I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that you don’t.

“Ballers” is so disposable that, three seasons in, I’d barely noticed John David Washington as Spencer’s buddy, wide receiver Ricky Jarrett, and he tears up the screen as the lead in Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman.”

Given its pedigree, it makes sense that “Ballers” is mindless and pretty — mansions, yachts, luxury cars — in an “Entourage” sort of way.

It’s practically the television equivalent of those paperbacks you kinda, sorta read — somewhat guiltily — while lying in the sun.

This summer, “Ballers” embraces that idea more than ever. The opening episodes are even set at the beach.

What to watch

Issa (reigning best actress in a comedy Emmy nominee Issa Rae) tries to get her life together after a breakup in the third season of “Insecure” (10:30 p.m. Sunday, HBO).

The animated “Disenchantment” (Friday, Netflix), from “The Simpsons” creator Matt Groening, follows a hard-drinking princess in the crumbling medieval kingdom of Dreamland.

Pahrump hit man Miles Daly (Chris O’Dowd) struggles to maintain his momentum as a filmmaker in Season 2 of “Get Shorty” (9 p.m. Sunday, Epix).

“Minding the Gap” (Friday, Hulu), which won a special jury award for breakthrough filmmaking this year at Sundance, was filmed over the course of 12 years and follows three skateboarders trying to make it out of Rockford, Illinois.

Contact Christopher Lawrence at clawrence@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4567. Follow @life_onthecouch on Twitter.

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