HBO's New Sunday Lineup Is Full Of Pleasant Surprises

Jun 17, 2015
Originally published on June 18, 2015 4:55 pm

Last weekend, HBO presented the season finales of its three Sunday night prime-time spring series, Game of Thrones, Silicon Valley and Veep. This weekend, HBO unveils its new Sunday night lineup: the all-new second season of True Detective, and two new comedies, Ballers, starring Dwayne Johnson, formerly known as the wrestler called The Rock, and The Brink, starring Tim Robbins and Jack Black.

Let's start with Ballers. HBO has tried building a sitcom around pro football before — back in 1984, with one of its earliest series efforts, 1st & Ten. That show not only was flat-out bad, but one of its stars was O.J. Simpson, just a few years before he became infamous as well as famous. Ballers, though much of it deals with the Miami Dolphins, is more like another vintage HBO sports comedy, Arli$$.

Johnson plays Spencer, an ex-Dolphin who is trying to make the transition from pro football player to financial planner for wealthy athletes. His boss is played by Rob Corddry, from The Daily Show, who throws indignities at Spencer that the Rock, in a wrestling ring, would never have sat there and taken. But Spencer does, with a slow burn that Johnson delivers very, very nicely.

Throw in the sexy women, the lavish spending, the outrageous misbehavior, and the greedy entourages, and Ballers feels like the football equivalent of the hip-hop music world of Empire — just as entertaining, and even less predictable.

HBO's other new comedy, The Brink, is even more recognizable as a variation on a theme. It's got an indecisive U.S. President, advisers who range from sensible to bloodthirsty, and an out-of-control pilot on a bombing mission overseas. Yes, it sounds almost exactly like Stanley Kubrick's brilliant apocalyptic anti-war comedy, Dr. Strangelove — but The Brink has its own modern take on the nonsense of war.

This series really takes chances with its casting, and those chances really pay off. Pablo Schreiber plays the loose-cannon pilot, sent to target Pakistan after a military coup there results in fears of World War III. Two comics who work superbly together here, Jack Black and Aasif Mandvi, play a low-level state department envoy and his driver on the ground in Pakistan. And back in the White House situation room, Tim Robbins, who's hilarious, plays Secretary of State Walter Larson. And when he picks a fight with the military advisor pushing for an immediate attack, even the President can't stop the bickering.

Finally, there's True Detective. Like American Horror Story and Fargo, it's designed so that each season of episodes stands alone, telling a new story with new characters, and mostly new actors. Last season, True Detective, with its grim flashbacks, was a combination murder mystery and character study, starring Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey. This season, once again created by Nic Pizzolatto, is about a different murder, and involves investigators from three different jurisdictions. Those investigators, all with troubled pasts and abrasive personalities, are played by Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams, and, from Friday Night Lights, Taylor Kitsch.

And in scenes set in both the past and present, the lawman played by Farrell has an uneasy relationship with a local white-collar criminal played by Vince Vaughn. In a flashback, we see their first meeting, when Vaughn's character summons Farrell's street cop to give him some information regarding the cop's wife, who has just been brutally attacked. He slides the cop a photograph, along with a note with the name and description of the man he has heard bragging about the crime.

It takes the entire first episode for the main characters to be thrown together — but as soon as they are, you realize there's no predicting what they'll do, which ones to trust, or even which ones will survive. It's the beauty of the miniseries form, and True Detective uses it expertly. As with HBO's other new Sunday offerings, I didn't know what to expect until I previewed them — but in all three cases, I've ended up pleasantly surprised.

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Last weekend, HBO presented the season finales of its three Sunday night primetime spring series - "Game Of Thrones," "Silicon Valley," and "Veep". This weekend, HBO unveils its new Sunday night lineup, the all new second season of "True Detective" and two new comedies - "Ballers" starring Dwayne Johnson, the former wrestler who was known as The Rock, and "The Brink" starring Tim Robbins and Jack Black. Our TV critic David Bianculli is surprised and impressed by all three shows.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: Let's start with "Ballers." HBO has tried building a sitcom around pro football before, way back in 1984, with one of its earliest series efforts "1st and 10." That show not only was flat-out bad, but one of its stars was O.J. Simpson just a few years before he became infamous as well as famous. "Ballers," though much of it deals with the Miami Dolphins, is more like another vintage HBO sports comedy "Arli$$". Dwayne Johnson plays Spencer, an ex-Dolphin who is trying to make the transition from pro football player to financial planner for wealthy athletes. His boss is played by Rob Corddry from "The Daily Show" who throws indignities at Spencer that The Rock in a wrestling ring would never have sat there and taken. But Spencer does with a slow burn that Johnson delivers very, very nicely as his boss complains about not locking up the estate planning for a football player who's just died.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BALLERS")

ROB CORDDRY: (As Joe) Look, there's going to come a time, because you've been here a year now, where you're going to have to...

DWAYNE JOHNSON: (As Spencer) Monetize my friendships, right?

CORDDRY: (As Joe) Yeah, but the way you say it, you know, monetizing friendships - it makes me sound like an [expletive]. All right? And I'm not, you know me. I hired you for access; for your friends. For players, even the ones you hate. I don't care. I don't care who it is. I don't care who they play for. What about Rodney? He probably could've used your help. Can we manage his estate at least?

JOHNSON: (As Spencer) There is no estate. Tina was left with nothing.

CORDDRY: (As Joe) Wow, you're kidding me right?

JOHNSON: (As Spencer) No.

BIANCULLI: Throw in the sexy women, the lavish spending, the outrageous misbehavior and the greedy entourages and "Ballers" feels like the football equivalent of the hip-hop music world of "Empire"- just as entertaining and even less predictable. HBO's other new comedy "The Brink" is even more recognizable as a variation on a theme. It's got an indecisive U.S. president, advisers who range from sensible to bloodthirsty and an out-of-control pilot on a bombing mission overseas. Yes, it sounds almost exactly like Stanley Kubrick's brilliant apocalyptic antiwar comedy Dr. Strangelove." But "The Brink" has its own modern take on the nonsense of war. This series really takes chances with its casting and those chances really pay off. Pablo Schreiber plays the loose-cannon pilot sent to target Pakistan after a military COO there results in fears of World War III. Two comics who work superbly together here (inaudible) play a low-level State Department envoy and his driver on the ground in Pakistan. And back in the White House situation room, Tim Robbins, who's hilarious, plays Secretary of State Walter Larson. And when he picks a fight with the military advisor pushing for an immediate attack, even the president can't stop the bickering.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE BRINK")

ESAI MORALES: (As President Julien Navarro) Walter, talk to me.

TIM ROBBINS: (As Walter Larson) Mr. President, I'm in the process of tracking down moderate elements in the Pakistani government. Give me 24 hours to find a different way.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) We don't have 24 hours Mr. President, we need to remove those weapons now.

ROBBINS: (As Walter Larson) Spoken like a true chicken hawk.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) You're out of line, Walter.

ROBBINS: (As Walter Larson) Am I? I was on the [expletive] roof defending the last chopper out of Saigon before my 19th birthday. When you were 19, you were date raping Radcliffe girls [expletive]. Or was it Harvard boys?

BIANCULLI: Finally, there's "True Detective." Like "American Horror Story" and "Fargo," it's designed so that each season of episodes stands alone telling a new story with new characters and mostly new actors. Last season, "True Detective," with its grim flashbacks, was a combination murder mystery and character study starring Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey. This season, once again created by Nick Pizzolatto, is about a different murder and involves new investigators from three different jurisdictions. Those investigators, all with troubled pasts and abrasive personalities, are played by Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams and from "Friday Night Lights," Taylor Kitsch. And in scenes set in both the past and present, the law man played by Colin Farrell has an uneasy relationship with a local white-collar criminal played by Vince Vaughn. In a flashback, we see their first meeting when Vaughn's character summons Farrell's street cop to give him some information regarding the cop's wife who has just been brutally attacked. He slides the cop a photograph along with a note with the name and description of the man he has heard bragging about the crime.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TRUE DETECTIVE")

VINCE VAUGHN: (As Frank Semyon) This is the description, all right? My people know him. He's not with us - amphetamine freak. Bragged about it said well, matched your wife's account.

COLIN FARRELL: (As Ray Velcoro) How do you know my wife's account?

VAUGHN: (As Frank Semyon) This is only information, man. I'm sharing with you. I wanted to do this. Now it's done. That's it.

FARRELL: (As Ray Velcoro) What to do you want from me?

VAUGHN: (As Frank Semyon) Me?

FARRELL: (As Ray Velcoro) Yeah.

VAUGHN: (As Frank Semyon) Not a thing. Maybe we'll talk sometime, maybe not.

BIANCULLI: It takes the entire first episode for the main characters to be thrown together. But as soon as they are, you realize there's no predicting what they'll do, which ones to trust, or even which ones will survive. It's the beauty of the miniseries form and "True Detective" uses it expertly. As with HBO's other new Sunday offerings, I didn't know what to expect until I previewed them. But in all three cases, I've ended up pleasantly surprised.

GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LOVE AND MERCY")

PAUL DANO: (As Brian Wilson) Remember, it's the higher octave on the upbeats in the bridge.

GROSS: That's Paul Dano as Brian Wilson in the new film "Love And Mercy." I'll talk with the film's screenwriter Oren Moverman and we'll hear excerpts of two interviews I recorded with Brian Wilson, the musical genius who created the sound of The Beach Boys. I hope you can join us tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WOULDN'T IT BE NICE")

THE BEACH BOYS: (Singing) Wouldn't it be nice if we were older, then we wouldn't have to wait so long. And wouldn't it be nice... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.