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Ballers: “Gaslighting”

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Ballers has a lot of problems, but eight episodes into its first season the biggest issue is the lack of development on almost any front. Week in and week out, Spencer, Joe, Vernon, Ricky, and Charles are put into different situations that test their character, their loyalty, and their business acumen. Week in and week out, the episode ends and it feels like each character is in exactly the same place. Nothing feels important, and there’s no depth to the problems facing Spencer and the rest of the characters.


Considering everything these athletes—both former and current—are going through, their complete lack of depth is a problem. Part of the issue is that Ballers seems content to throw its characters into sitcom-like situations that should have some sort of consequences, but then shrugs them off by the next episode. For instance, Charles spends the entirety of tonight’s episode thinking about getting back into the NFL. When he sees that a Miami Dolphins player is injured, his dreams come closer to being a reality. He heads to work and pushes cars around the lot while everyone bets on his strength. Clearly he’s still athletic enough to compete, but what’s motivating Charles to get back in the big leagues? We know nothing of Charles, of the reason he retired so early or what reason he might have for wanting to return to the NFL. And what about his situation with Julie? Only a few episodes ago he was breaking out of his perceived shell and letting loose before Julie caught him and scolded him. Now she’s nowhere to be found and Charles is back to being himself again. It’s this kind of unfocused, lazy storytelling that makes Ballers so forgettable every week.

Essentially, there’s no stakes, and nothing feels meaningful or important. When Spencer heads back to the doctor’s office to get the results of his MRI, the doctor tells him he’s fine neurologically, but that his symptoms might suggest psychological issues. That’s an interesting development, but one that’s also frustrating. It’s indicative of the show’s strange swings in pace and tone, something that’s left other episodes feeling scattered. Ballers both wants to slow-burn much of its narrative–think of how little we know about Spencer and his life in the NFL–while also blowing through conflicts as if they don’t matter. The two methods of storytelling are constantly at odds with one another in “Gaslighting” and throughout this first season in general.


That off-putting pace extends to Ricky’s storyline, where he’s trying to make up with Bella by—you guessed it—buying her expensive jewelry. It’s a cliché storyline, so stale and dull that Washington’s charisma can’t even breathe new life into it. When his friend details Ricky’s relationship problems to the sales person, she takes him to the “VIP” section because he needs to spend money to win his girl back. He points at a handful of rings, the sales woman turning down each one as insufficient until he spends $400,000. It’s a ridiculous scene, one that’s been done time and again on television and achieves nothing in terms of plot or character. We already know Ricky is closed off to the real problems in his relationship, that he always uses money as a solution. What does this scene achieve? What’s the point of once again showing us that Ricky isn’t always present and thoughtful? When he brings the ring to Annabella later, she shuts him down, joking about how it’s an engagement ring and he clearly doesn’t want that. It’s everything we’ve ever seen from their relationship, and it’s tiring at this point in the season.

The lone highlight of “Gaslighting” is Rob Corddry (as usual), who seems to be on a completely different show. After getting kicked out of the office by Mr. Anderson, Joe formulates a plan to start his own firm, hopefully with Spencer by his side. He goes to visit Victor Cruz and lock him down as a potential client. He meets him at a tattoo parlor, where Cruz agrees to stay with Joe. He has one condition though: Joe needs to get a tattoo of Cruz on his back. It’s a solid storyline, the type of ridiculous, loose comedy that Ballers occasionally stumbles upon but never sustains. The storytelling here is so efficient, clear, and funny, and it stands in stark contrast to the rest of the episode.

At the end of “Gaslighting,” Spencer meets with Angie and manages to get Vernon’s pictures back, even if it means he’s slipping back on his meds. Just like with Ricky and Charles’ storylines, Ballers assumes showing Spencer interacting with Angie and then popping pills is enough, in terms of drama or insight. It’s not, though. Angie is hardly a relevant character on this show, despite her alleged history with Spencer. When Spencer gets the pictures back from her, the show plays it as a moment of both triumph and loss for Spencer. He’s helped Vernon, but at what cost? That’s the surface level, but there’s nothing deeper to make the scene more engaging. We know nothing of Angie or her past with Spencer, so the idea that he would feel threatened by her falls flat. That’s “Gaslighting” in a nutshell though. Without character development and depth, everything falls flat.

Stray observations

  • The Rock singing Taylor Swift is my everything. Here’s more of it.
  • Line of the night goes to Ricky’s friend. When Ricky mentions being like Derek Jeter, he says, “you ain’t even Derek Fisher.”
  • Ballers has been renewed for a second season. HBO is drinking the Strasmore Kool-Aid.
  • This week in the Ballers soundtrack: