Before There Was Entourage and Ballers, There Was Arli$$
By Robert Silva
Decades before Ballers' Spencer Strasmore (Dwayne Johnson) hatched a risky plan to bring pro football to Las Vegas, self-proclaimed “super-agent” Arliss Michaels (Robert Wuhl) was shuffling players around the country to improve his fantasy sports stats.
Before Entourage dived into life on the A-list, Arli$$ pulled back the curtains on the bizarre business of playing in the big leagues.
Over seven seasons, Arli$$ offered a satiric look at the backstage shenanigans of professional sports. Rampant steroid use, in-the-closet athletes and nutcase team owners are among the usual topics that fueled the show’s absurdist storylines. From over-the-top parodies (merchandising an all-star’s sperm) to ripped-from-the-headlines plots(coping with the ‘98-99 NBA Lockout), the show broke fresh ground, reveling in the money-flush circus of sports and celebrity.
Guiding viewers through the insider madness is Arliss himself, a sports agent who will go to any lengths to advance his clients' careers, and increase his agency’s cash flow — even if it means throwing ethics under the bus. Or, in one case, teaching a college ethics class, in order to scout out new athletic prospects. (Ironies abound in this business.) Indeed, each episode of Arli$$ kicks off with an excerpt from the agent’s glossy memoir, The Art of the Super-Agent, before his onscreen actions wildly contradict his glib advice. (Wuhl got the idea from reading a similar book, The Art of the Deal.)
Unlikely to be given full credit in Arliss’ book is his overworked and underpraised team, handling the heavy lifting behind the scenes: Rita Wu (Sandra Oh), his savvy but occasionally conscience-stricken right-hand; thick-headed ex-pro partner Kirby Carlisle (Jim Turner), and straight-laced financial advisor Stanley (Michael Boatman). They make a sharp comic ensemble throughout the series, as they woo reluctant clients and scramble to close a million-dollar contract… or use foundation money to make a scandal go away.
Dealmaking aside, Arli$$ is a show that clearly loves competition in all its forms (even beach volleyball and golf) and athletes (look out for cameos by Tonya Harding and a teenage Kobe Bryant). Arliss Michaels is above all, a fan. Sometimes to a fault. In the Season 1 highlight, "The Stuff Dreams Are Made Of," he tries to rescue his childhood idol, boozing baseball legend Rocky Fromaggio (Ken Howard), only to see his washed-up hero demolish every opportunity that comes across his plate. But at the end, Arliss is in his office, listening to an old radio broadcast, swinging a make-believe bat in childlike wonder, a kid again.
Ballers and Entourage are both messy, candid, and furiously entertaining looks at the inner-workings of celebrity, pulling back curtains and exposing us to the dealmakers scheming for the next huge payday. But like Arli$$ before them, they don’t lose touch with why all the wheeling and dealing is happening in the first place. It’s an insane business. But it’s also where the magic happens. Arliss Michaels knows there’s no place he’d rather be.