HBO pours on the problems with ‘True Detective,’ ‘Ballers,’ ‘The Brink’

Christopher Lawrence The Las Vegas Review-Journal
BALLERS Episode 3: Rob Corddry, Dwayne Johnson. photo: Jeff Daly/courtesy of HBO

In the new comedy “Ballers,” Dwayne Johnson portrays retired NFL superstar and up-and-coming financial planner Spencer Strasmore, who chews prescription meds as though they were Pez, may have concussion-related brain trauma, just lost a friend and former teammate in a car wreck and emptied out his bank account to lend a potential client $300,000.

His problems are the fewest and least severe of any character in HBO’s new Sunday lineup, which also includes the geopolitical comedy “The Brink” and the second season of “True Detective.”

It’s difficult to think of “Ballers” (10 p.m. Sunday) as anything other than a football version of “Entourage,” thanks to its reliance on celebrity cameos, sex and drugs, flashy cars, mansions and yachts. It’s even harder when you consider it was created by “Entourage” executive producer Stephen Levinson, Mark Wahlberg’s longtime bro and business partner.

Continuing the “Entourage” theme, that would leave Spencer stuck somewhere between Ari and Lloyd, as he must answer to both his boss (Rob Corddry) and his boss’s boss (Richard Schiff) while getting caught up in the eccentricities and hangers-on of the Vince character, Dallas Cowboys player Vernon Littlefield (Donovan Carter), who’s even more of a bore than the actual Vince.

Johnson obviously has charisma to spare, and Corddry is always good for a laugh. But with the exception of retired-too-soon lineman Charles Greane (Omar Miller), who’s struggling to adapt to civilian life and is ecstatic when he lands a job selling cars, there’s really no one in “Ballers” to root for.

Nowhere near as flashy nor as easily pigeonholed, “The Brink” (10:30 p.m. Sunday) will sneak up on you as it takes a few episodes to really jell.

Low-level diplomat Alex Talbot (Jack Black) is stationed in the U.S. embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan, which he refers to as “this anal cavity of a country.” He’s dragged his driver, Rafiq (Aasif Mandvi), to an outdoor market to score some weed when a coup leaves them trapped and places an unstable general (Iqbal Theba of “Glee”) in charge of the country’s nuclear arsenal.

Through an unfortunate series of events, Talbot is the best hope Secretary of State Walter Larson (Tim Robbins) has of averting World War III. And the only reason Larson knows who he is is that Talbot has occasionally furnished him with blonde Asian twin hookers.

“The Brink” grows increasingly farcical as it goes. A couple of Navy pilots (Pablo Schreiber, Eric Ladin) high on morphine accidentally shoot down an Indian drone over Pakistan. And the ambassador to Pakistan (John Larroquette) actively looks forward to the destruction of Israel because he’s convinced that would bring about the Rapture.

The comedy gives its characters the depth “Ballers” never musters, and it serves up some fantastic moments for Robbins as the kinky Cabinet member.

“You’re only there because you introduced Bush 43 to Jesus,” Robbins’ Talbot yells at his ambassador. “Whether or not that makes you personally responsible for everything we’ve done post-9/11, well that’s for Judgment Day, which I’m sure you’ve marked on your calendar with some sort of smiley face.”

But most eyes will be on the returning “True Detective” (9 p.m. Sunday), which has trouble living up to its riveting debut season despite doubling down on troubled characters.

Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell), a detective in the fictional industrial town of Vinci, Calif., is seeking expanded custody of his son, who may not be his actual son because his ex-wife (Abigail Spencer) was raped nine months before giving birth. He’s not only shockingly, off-the-rails deranged, Ray also has been corrupted through his decade-old ties to gangster Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn). And Frank’s starting to lose his cool since the disappearance of the Vinci city manager, which is messing up the land deal that was Frank’s best chance at going legit.

Elsewhere, Ventura County Sheriff’s detective Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams) reconnects with her sister during a webcam porn bust and her estranged hippie dad (David Morse), who runs a New Agey institute where a maid went missing. She also does something offscreen in her bedroom that freaks out the fellow cop she’s sleeping with.

And California Highway Patrol motorcycle officer Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch) is on administrative leave pending an investigation into bogus allegations that he fixed a ticket for an actress in exchange for sex.

But, judging by the three episodes sent to critics, it’s as though “True Detective” creator Nic Pizzolatto put all his efforts into creating backstories while neglecting the actual stories.

Time is no longer a flat circle in the world of “True Detective,” which has jettisoned the mysticism, the time jumps and the green-eared spaghetti monster in favor of something more linear.

Although the scene at the beginning of episode three is as bonkers as anything the series has produced, nothing else gets anywhere near as interesting as any random bit of honey-smooth craziness that poured out of the mouth of Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle.

Christopher Lawrence writes for The Las Vegas Review-Journal.