Anyone with fond memories of the great 1979 Nick Nolte-Mac Davis football flick “North Dallas Forty” will find the opening of the promising new 10-episode HBO comedy “Ballers,” premiering Sunday at 10 p.m., familiar.
A hulking man — former Miami Dolphin Spencer Strasmore (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) — gingerly wrests himself from his bed and creakily works out the many kinks visited upon his still-imposing body. The lavish Miami home speaks to the perks of his NFL career. The prescription meds he crunches down to ease the pain that’s etched across his face betray the costs. It is one of a few judicious but effective scenes of gravity in a show that is mostly about levity. Like “North Dallas Forty” before it, it lifts a curtain on the fictional lives of current and recently retired football players and their attempts to navigate the playbook of real life.
The series’ biggest asset is Johnson (“San Andreas,” “Furious Seven”), a mighty mountain of a man with a gentle-giant spirit who is instantly likable as Spencer, a former star player. Having suffered fiscal and identity crises following his retirement, he is now attempting to right his own ship, as well as lend a hand to his floundering friends and former teammates who may know 100 complicated pass routes but can’t manage their finances, families, libidos, or self-destructive impulses.
With his Hollywood resume now outdistancing his pro wrestling career, Johnson has reached a sweet spot as an actor, easily able to handle the lighter aspects of the role while also nailing its more dramatic, emotional components.
Johnson is ably assisted by a supporting cast that includes Weymouth native Rob Corddry (“Hot Tub Time Machine”) as his oily and deeply unhip boss Joe. The pair work at a financial firm where Joe is constantly advising Spencer to “monetize” his friendships with his big-time gridiron buddies. When Spencer’s friend, current player Ricky Jerret (John David Washington, “The Book of Eli”), punches his way into a PR bind and rising star Vernon (Donovan W. Carter) finds his paycheck gobbled up by greedy sycophants, Spencer finally realizes the wisdom of Joe’s words.
Washington, a former pro player, is the son of actors Denzel and Pauletta Washington. He has clearly inherited the family gift as he makes the internal war raging between Ricky’s angels and demons palpable.
The cuddly Omar Benson Miller (“CSI: Miami”) is also on hand as former player Charles Greane who, adrift and anonymous in retirement, takes a job as a car salesman. Troy Garity (“Boss”), as a hotshot sports agent named Jason, rounds out the core cast.
Another strong sign for the show is its behind-the-camera pedigree. It was created by Steve Levinson (“In Treatment,” “Entourage,” “Boardwalk Empire”) and is executive produced by Levinson and his partner on those projects, Mark Wahlberg. Among the other executive producers is Peter Berg — who also appears as the coach of the Dolphins. Berg knows a little something about football, having helmed both the successful film and television adaptations of his cousin Buzz Bissinger’s book “Friday Night Lights.”
That said, make no mistake: “Ballers” is a sunny, beachfront comedy long on R-rated language and nightclub escapades, with all the sex, drugs, and golddiggers that implies. Here, a strong cast and sharp writing prove to be a winning combination.
Starring: Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Rob Corddry, Omar Benson Miller, John David Washington, Donovan W. Carter, Troy Garity, Jazmyn Simon, Arielle Kebbel
Time: Sunday, 10 p.m.Sarah Rodman can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeRodman.