TV Minus the TV: HBO’s Ballers debuts, and Hannibal touches the heart
Welcome to TV Minus the TV, a column full of thoughts about TV shows watched on laptops published on the internet for you to read on your phone.
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Ballers #01, “Pilot” by Bryce Rudow
Hannibal #304, “Secondo” by Charles Bramesco
Ballers #01, “Pilot”
Any Given Sunday Night TV Show
By Bryce Rudow (@brycetrudow)
I have a confession to make.
No matter how many episodes of Game of Thrones or Veep or Silicon Valley I watch, whenever I hear that beginning HBO title-card sound, there’s a Pavlovian response to the thought of hearing Jane’s Addiction’s now signature guitar riff fade in.
No matter how long it’s been since the summer of 2006, a part of me will always have to remind my inner 19-year-old that it’s time to grow up and accept that Entourage is sexist, terribly-written wealth-porn.
Coincidentally, it’s that same part of me that tries to get my inner football fan to realize what a terrible thing the NFL actually is. So naturally, when HBO’s new show Ballers starring The Rock “The Rock” Johnson premiered and those two vices were mixed into one glorious Mark Wahlberg-produced bropacalypse, I couldn’t look away. I had to at least hate-watch it.
But the sad thing is, you can’t even hate-watch this show.
Unlike the escapist rush that Entourage provided via its behind-the-scenes look at the incomprehensible world of Hollywood royalty, Sports Entourage feels tragically grounded. It may brand itself as showing us ‘what it’s really like’ to be involved in the unknown world of professional sports, but thanks to a surplus of social media and gossip sites and documentaries, it’s not showing us anything we haven’t already seen or read about before, and with actual athletes we know and care about.
The A.V. Club called the show a ‘wish-fulfillment playground for dudes’, but this show is fulfilling wishes that Any Given Sunday already took care of 15 years ago. Talking about the brain-trauma ramifications of football (or as Ballers put it, “identity issues”)? Please meet Luther “Shark” Lavay:
“If it drives, flies, floats, or fucks, lease it!” – the favored financial advice of Spencer Strassmore – is just a paraphrase of Al Pacino’s, “You’re very, very young… and you’re very, very stupid.”
Sure, having Drake and Lil Wayne on your theme song is a lot better than having Jamie Foxx try and rhyme ‘Beamen’ with as many words as he can, but at some point you need more than just cameos, and hot girls flashing red panties#, and the kid from Smart House getting his shit rocked. You need a theme, a purpose for the story. It can either be the “what happens when you ‘monetize friendships’” one, or the “the world is an empty place when ‘you’ve got to quantify every damn thing’” one, or even go headfirst into the actual effects of CTE# to try and capture that ‘we’re trying to raise awareness’ angle, but if this is just going to be a show full of empty reminders that, as Spencer “The Rock” Strassmore blatantly lays out, “When it’s done, and you’re done, you’re going to be broke and miserable, and the worst part is that no one is going to give a fuck about you,” then we’re in for a long season.
The show also has to deal with what I am now coining as “The ’The Rock’ Casting Conundrum”.
As Vince McMahon had to learn when the Brahma Bull was in his heyday, the hardest part about working with The Rock is finding someone charismatic enough to match up with him in the ring; you couldn’t just have him give a 6-minute long pump-up speech then hand the mic off to the likes of Jeff Hardy for a response. The reason the more recent Fast and Furious movies worked out so well is because Vin Diesel et al. can go toe-to-toe with The Rock when it comes to stage presence. Unfortunately, on Ballers, the only person that feels at all natural on screen with The People’s Champ is Rob Corrdry, who John Lopez beautifully described as having, “a grin that brings to mind the kind of stranger who tells you a dirty joke in the men’s room.”
But maybe The Rock is all Ballers needs.
To go back to the Any Given Sunday comparison, let’s do a quick thought exercise: Who, in 2015, has more star power?
Oliver Stone + Al Pacino + Cameron Diaz + Jamie Foxx + Dennis Quaid + James Woods + Matthew Modine + John C. McGinley + Aaron Eckhart, combined…
The Rock “The Rock” Johnson?
I think it’s a People’s Elbow straight through the heart. Sorry, Dennis.
Bonus Fun Fact: The reason the show can use NFL logos without permission is because anyone can use the NFL trademark and team logos as long as it is as they were intended to be used and it does not disparage or tarnish them.
Hannibal #303, “Secondo”
By Charles Bramesco (@intothecrevasse)
There’s a scene in Spike Jonze’s self-reflexive mindcruncher Adaptation. in which Adaptation. screenwriter Charlie Kaufman listens to a movie pitch from his fictitious, fatuous twin brother Donald. Donald lays out a paint-by-number serial killer thriller, and Charlie deftly walks his brother through the manifold badness of this idea: “The only idea more overused than serial killers is multiple personality. On top of that, you explore the notion that cop and criminal are really two aspects of the same person. See every cop movie ever made for other examples of this.”
Watching early episodes of Hannibal, it was difficult not to hear Charlie’s words echo like a ghost’s warning. Showrunner Bryan Fuller found endless fascination in the groundbreaking suggestion that hey, maybe these guys aren’t so different after all! The endless dualism between Will and Hannibal started stale and only got moldy from there, but with “Secondo,” their dynamic takes on an intriguing new dimension. The barely-sublimated homoeroticism of season one’s exchanges between the show’s central pair landed like an intentionally hilarious joke, but the show’s writers have brought it to a more compelling place in the third season. Perhaps Will and Hannibal aren’t the show’s opposed Joker-Batman figures, destined to wrestle for eternity as two equally integral aspects of a single principle. Hannibal would certainly be a different sort of show if Will and Hannibal literalized their symbolic love, but it wouldn’t be a lesser sort.
“Secondo” guides Will through one of the most major signpost markers in any relationship, seeing a partner’s home life, though it does so in the Hannibal-est way imaginable. Even as Will visits Hannibal’s home in staggeringly lovely Lithuania and learns about the killer’s childhood, the show knows better than to nest a Rosebud# within its leading man’s backstory. Origin stories are geared to provide answers, and Hannibal’s provides anti-answers. What might as well have been eons ago, Hannibal drew up a story about his deceased sister Mischa in order to keep the newly introduced Chiyo under his thumb. Maybe Mischa died, maybe Hannibal ate her, maybe she never existed at all; Hannibal’s a wholly unreliable narrator, and the details we hear from Bedelia are an his secondhand fictions. All that matters here is that Will’s efforts to gain insight into Hannibal only cement his general inscrutability. Nothing happened to him to activate any latent cannibalism. Nothing made him like this. This is simply who he is, a carnivorous force of nature. The show’s constant fixation on animal imagery makes perfect sense; for all his urbane affectation, Hannibal’s still an apex predator.
The power of his influence is so strong, in fact, that Hannibal begins to rub off on Will. (Gay masturbation pun extremely intended.) Just as Hannibal forces Bedelia’s hand by making her pull an ice pick out of their dinner guest’s head, Will also reluctantly takes to the dark side in this episode. He implicates himself in an unrepentant sort of evil, not content with taking Chiyo’s prisoner’s life, but going so far as to dress him up as a highly symbolic butterfly-corpse; it’s the exact sort of thing that Hannibal would do, a baroquely violent gesture wedding artistry with savagery. And of course Fuller intends the snails crawling up and down the prisoner’s corpse to be reminiscent of the escargot that Hannibal snacked on earlier this season. These men use different words, provide themselves with different rationalizations, and sculpt different grotesque artworks with the bodies of their victims, but at their essence, they’re one and the same. The Nicolas Cage-played Charlie Kaufman would point out that this is the oldest trick in the book. Still, Fuller’s star-crossed lover schtick between Hannibal and Will works. They’re not two aspects of the same person. They’re the same person.
During his extensive chats with decomposing Dr. Gideon, Hannibal grappled with the uncomfortable realization that he needs Will in his life. Nothing provides him with the same comfort and sense of fulfillment as his time spent with Will, in part because they’re evenly matched foes. In no insignificant way, however, it’s also due to the abiding adoration these men have for one another. They’re clearly in love, and “Secondo” sees them both suppressing that urge and channeling it through another outlet. Will internalizes his love for Hannibal, and it manifests in his gory magnum opus. Hannibal’s a more compartmentalized sort, though, and his only response to his love for Will is absolute obliteration. His need to have Will in his life contradicts every detached impulse he’s ever felt, and he rejects the notion completely.
It’s a perfect sort of rejection, too. Hannibal concludes the episode by deciding once and for all that the only resolution to the situation is to eat Will. In a rare moment of blindness to his own words, Hannibal fails to realize that this represents the ultimate union of his body and Will’s. It’s the closest they can get to having sex that isn’t actually sex. Fuller’s edging, # bringing viewers to the very brink of consummation between its main characters while never going that far. The vast archives of man-on-man fanart, as fate would have it, weren’t too far off.
But, of course, none of this fucking matters because Hannibal is dead. Maybe. NBC officially announced yesterday that they would not renew the critically acclaimed but dismally-rated series, and that this thirteen-episode run would be the show’s final season on the network. There are still faint glimmers of hope on the horizon, however. As Community fans know full well, it’s not over until — well, it’s never really over. It’s only over once the fans have given up, and so when the legions of faithful Fannibals inevitably sound their cries of despair across the web, some smart online content providers might get the bright idea to provide the niche program a second home. Bryan Fuller and the De Laurentiis Company have already stoked the flames, stating that if some enterprising platform wanted to revive Hannibal, they’d be down.
For now, let’s relax with a nice glass of chianti and enjoy the remainder of this season. But once the curtain falls on season three, heed my call to action, fellow Fannibals! Mail the executives of Amazon, Netflix, and Yahoo your own severed limbs as a symbol of our undying love for television’s most macabre hour! If it worked for Jericho, I see no reason why it shouldn’t work for us.
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