Deadshirt Is Watching…is a weekly feature in which Deadshirt staff, contributors, and guests sound off on the television shows we’re tuned into, from intense dramas to clever sitcoms to the most insane reality shows. This week: Ballers and Steven Universe!
Tyler Austin is watching…
Season 1, Episode 1: “Pilot”
Sundays at 10 on HBO
I hate to break it to you guys, but Ballers, which focuses on retired defensive end Spence Strassmore (Dwayne “American Hero”/”The Rock” Johnson) and his post-football career as a money manager, is a hell of a lot closer to Entourage or Arli$$ (Google Arli$$) than anything resembling a commentary on sports and/or the business of sports.
Case in point: The Trial of Ricky Jarrett. Ricky Jarrett (played admirably by John David Washington; Denzel’s son) is the top slot receiver in the NFL, and he had EIGHTY catches last year. EIGHTY, GUYS!* Ricky is also the kind of guy who has sex in a club bathroom, and then punches some drunk idiot in the face a few times before leaving. (This actually could’ve been interesting, but it’s swept under the rug almost instantly: Ricky’s a guy who can be loved or hated on a weekly basis, and because of his celebrity nobody minds telling him about it to his face. Something to be explored? Nah.) Anyway, Ricky gets caught on camera beating some dude’s face in, and all of a sudden, he’s trending. “Downward,” the show tell us, a little too proud of its banter. He apologizes to his team’s management, and immediately gets cut. Luckily, in steps Spence who makes one call, and poof!—Jarrett has been signed by the Miami Dolphins. But he’s a minute late to his meeting on a huge fishing boat with his new Coach, who’s played by episode director Peter Berg. Coach Peter Berg leaves without him, but, don’t worry, Jarrett earns his respect. “You’ve got some big balls,” Coach Peter Berg says, in reference to Ricky, who literally just sat on a dock for presumably somewhere between an hour or three.
*Sports Fact Checking Break: Wes Welker who legitimately was the best slot receiver in the NFL for a stretch of six years had 112, 111, 123, 86, 122, 118 in those respective years. Sometimes knowing sports ruins a show that doesn’t.
So, this is the unfortunate way the show has chosen to deal with conflict; in and out. Now, time for the good news: Dwayne Johnson and Rob Corddry are totally, completely awesome. Corddry plays Joe; the man who brought Spence into the questionable world of “financial advisement.” He sells his lines so hard that he makes weaker dialogue funny through sheer force of will. Johnson remains as likeable as ever, and pulls off the “ex-athlete with a brain for business” shtick better than anyone should have any right to. The moments of this show that work revolve around the relationship between these two.
In an ideal world, this show will get whipped into shape by the end of the first season, and actually starts taking on storylines of value and interest, or at the very least, real conflict. Until then, no matter how charming the lead and his sidekick are, this second-stringer should probably be cut.
Episode Highlight: The storyline that actually has some potential is that of Omar Miller’s forgotten and borderline depressed offensive lineman Charles Greane. He can’t pull himself off his couch, and, only at his wife’s behest, manages to get a job as a car salesman. Julie, played by Jazmyn Simon, is one of many player wives/girlfriends we meet over the course of the pilot, but she’s the only one with any fleshing out or personality to speak of. Their relationship and Greane’s new job appear to be the emotional and moral center of the show, and hopefully they can keep the over-the-top party scenes grounded in something resembling reality. If not, Ballers may float right off into the sky, never to be seen again.
Julian Ames is Watching…
Season 2, Episodes 9 thru 13
Monday – Friday, Cartoon Network
Season One of Steven Universe generally had a light tone, often feeling as naive and carefree as its protagonist, Steven. Over 49 eleven-minute episodes, the show slowly built the world, revealing in bits details about Steven, his guardians (aliens known as The Crystal Gems), his parents, (a Gem named Rose Quartz and a human named Greg), and the town of Beach City. The show managed to keep its relaxed nonsensical feel throughout that time by not revealing the high stakes of the larger plot until the climactic few episodes of the end of the season. Since then, the second season has felt a little less free and a little more dark and urgent, but the show still manages to keep its charming vibe, largely by telling heartwarming stories and keeping Steven’s lighthearted, childlike demeanor constant and virtually unshakable. This past week, Cartoon Network decided to air Steven Universe episodes in “StevenBomb” form, a.k.a. five episodes in a week instead of once a week. The five that aired: “Sworn to the Sword,” “Rising Tides/Crashing Skies,” “Keeping it Together,” “We Need to Talk,” and “Chille Tid,” are all separate and mostly unconnected except for a few key themes.
The theme that recurs the most in these five episodes is that of fusion. All of the Crystal Gem race have the capability to temporarily fuse, forming a new Gem from two or more separate Gems. We’ve seen a bunch of examples of fusion in previous episodes: Pearl and Amethyst (Opal), Amethyst and Garnet (Sugilite), Garnet, Amethyst and Pearl (Alexandrite) and several others; Garnet herself is revealed to be a fusion of Sapphire and Ruby. The nature of fusions is explored throughout the five episodes, and we learn a bit more about what they’re like. The good case of a fusion is detailed in “We Need to Talk:” in a flashback recounted by Greg, Pearl fuses with Rose Quartz—forming Rainbow Quartz—the bond formed by a willing and loving relationship. Greg unsuccessfully tries to do a physical fusion with Rose Quartz at first, but instead “fuses” metaphorically with her by having a romantic heart-to-heart since humans and Gems can’t fuse. That is, except for Steven and his friend/love interest (idk, they’re 10) Connie.
The bad case of a fusion is shown in “Chille Tid.” At the end of the first season, the powerful evil Gem known as Jasper forces another powerful but neutral Gem, Lapus Lazuli, to fuse, creating Malachite, who ends up trapped somewhere at the bottom of the ocean. In the episode, Steven ends up accidentally tapping into the psyche of Malachite while dreaming. That fusion, made by anger and force, is depicted as a tug of war between the two origin gems Jasper and Lapus for control of the fusion. The ugly side of Gem fusion is revealed in “Keeping it Together.” The other evil gem from the end of Season One, Peridot, is discovered running fusion experiments underground; shards of old, defeated Gems are being combined and compacted into artificial fusions that end up being clusters of arms, legs and other limbs with no heads or torsos. Garnet, a fusion herself, is so horrified by the abominations that she almost involuntarily splits back into Ruby and Sapphire—thus displaying how sacred the bond of fusion should be, and that a violation can shock a normally cool customer to both of her cores.
Although not addressing fusion directly, the first episode of the bunch addresses Pearl’s relationship with Rose. In “Sworn to the Sword,” Steven and Connie ask to have Pearl train Connie to sword fight, and Pearl mistakes Connie’s desire to help protect the world, her home, and her friends, as the desire to only protect Steven. Pearl trains Connie as a knight, (or a samurai) ready to put Steven’s life over her own. Steven and the audience learns that that is how Pearl thought of herself in regards to Rose Quartz, Pearl was so devoted to Rose that she would repeatedly sacrifice herself, even when it seemed like Rose could handle it. When Steven and Connie confront Pearl about her teaching style, an exasperated Pearl yells at Steven, “why won’t you let me do this for you, Rose!?” implying that, even years later, Pearl is still carrying feelings for Rose and is projecting those feelings on and around Steven. Pearl’s love for Rose also shows up in “We Need to Talk,” manifesting as jealousy of Greg; it briefly appears once more in “Chille Tid,” as a weird dream of Pearl’s in which Rose’s body has Greg’s face and voice, and like a pizza tongue or something.
“Rising Tides/Crashing Skies” is the only episode of the bunch that doesn’t have any of these themes tying it to the rest of the episodes. This episode deals with the aftermath of the big climactic battle at the end of Season One from the perspective of the normal humans of Beach City. Laid out as a documentary by Beach City’s resident conspiracy theorist, Ronaldo, it features interviews with some of the other townspeople as he tries to figure out what happened that night. He eventually comes to the conclusion that the Crystal Gems are attracting all the bad supernatural stuff that happens in the town, and he demands that they leave town. They seemingly oblige, until Ronaldo realizes that he has betrayed his mantra to “keep Beach City weird,” and begs them to stay. It’s a funny change-of-pace story that serves as a break from the episodes that are either story-centric or emotionally heavy.
There’s always a deceptively large amount to unpack in any Steven Universe episode, so giving us five in a row is a lot. But, in a move that is both a blessing and a curse, the show doesn’t air again for another month, and it returns once again in StevenBomb form on the week of July 13th.
Episode Highlight: There’s so much good stuff to choose from in a span of five eleven-minute episodes, but the thing that cracked me up each time I saw it was Pearl’s dream from “Chille Tid,” where a Rose/Greg hybrid yells “Thanks for fixing my van!” and then proceeds to creepily regurgitate a slice of pizza.