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HBO’s ‘Ballers’ Is Visual Candy—Plus There’s a Mezuzah

An appearance by a Jewish artifact has elevated my love for the dramedy about hard-partying athletes with hearts of gold

Sara Ivry
July 21, 2015
 Kevin Winter/Getty Images
Dwayne Johnson at the Nickelodeon Kids' Choice Sports Awards at UCLA's Pauley Pavilion in Los Angeles, California, July 17, 2014. Kevin Winter/Getty Images
 Kevin Winter/Getty Images
Dwayne Johnson at the Nickelodeon Kids' Choice Sports Awards at UCLA's Pauley Pavilion in Los Angeles, California, July 17, 2014. Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Imagine if Miami Vice and Entourage had a baby. No doubt, it’d be Ballers, a new show from HBO that features all the beach-side T-and-A of the former, and the buffoonery of the latter, in telling the zany tale of a constellation of former and current football players who are essentially bad boys with hearts of gold. I’ll put money down that was the show’s original pitch. And that’s not a criticism—Ballers is riveting. Or, well, it rivets me with its offering of pure, no-stakes television candy: The people are pretty. The cars are pretty. It’s sunny. It’s fun. There are occasional shots of ocean and palm trees.

The show’s voice of reason and moderation is Spencer Strasmore, played by the impeccable and dashing Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. (His name always prompts me to assert, “The Rock Rocks,” the tagline for a film in which he has no role). In Ballers he’s a pill-popping former athlete who might suffer from post-concussion syndrome, and who’s trying to make a career for himself as a financial manager by helping fellow players ensure they don’t squander their newfound millions. He’s well dressed and well-manicured, and he makes jokes about crack. What’s not to love?

Spence’s business partner/sidekick is Joe, who’s really his boss but acts as a second fiddle. Joe, who’s played by Rob Corddry (yes that guy from The Daily Show), is a bald, slight fellow. He’s a clown. At a yacht party that Spence and Joe throw to woo new clients, Joe gets drunk and high, grinds on babes—the only kind of women who exist in Ballers world—who may or may not be pros, then wakes up the next morning on a table without a shred of regret. Dignity’s got no place here—it’s Florida! He’s a lawyer and money guy, and he’s ambitious. Somehow he reads to me as Irish—and his name, Joe Krutel, gives nothing away.

Maybe I’m naïve. He’s a lawyer and a money guy, you’ll say. And in TV land, this means but one thing: Jew.

Well, you’re right. Joe is a Jew. On the most recent episode, which aired on Sunday, we get a glimpse of his thoroughly unremarkable house. Aside from tacky red furnishings, its got a huge mezuzah mounted on the entryway. There’s no reason Joe shouldn’t be Jewish. I’ve got no beef with Jewish characters being lawyers or money guys as long as they don’t embody various insidious stereotypes à la Maurice Levy, the unctuous attorney from The Wire.

But Ballers, in general, is so divorced from any kind of religious or spiritual engagement that any evidence of membership in a faith community feels—pardon the intrusion of a baseball metaphor in discussion of gridiron-inspired programming—out of left field. That mezuzah was a curveball. See, I originally tuned in to Ballers because of The Rock—it’s my current viewing confection, and it’s yummy. It’s an escape. I sit down on Monday nights, after my kid has gone to sleep, turn on, tune in, and drop out. I never expected to see any similarities between my life and what I see on screen. I don’t wear a bikini of eensy-weensy proportion. I’m not negotiating a $70 million contract. And I’m not getting booty call text messages at all hours (not currently, anyway).

But then—that mezuzah appeared and I felt a flash of recognition: Joe and I have something in common? Maybe the mezuzah was a shout-out from the Ballers’ creative team to Jewish family members and fans. Or maybe it’s simply that the house the show rented to film in came with a mezuzah on its door. I like to think it was a hint of a backstory that suggests that Joe, who is by and large a goofy clown, may very well be one with more than a single dimension. And that’s another reason I’ll keep watching.

Sara Ivry is the host of Vox Tablet, Tablet Magazine’s weekly podcast. Follow her on Twitter@saraivry.