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Can Mark Wahlberg have it all?

The star’s HBO vanity docuseries series Wahl Street posits entrepreneurship as self-development.

Actor Mark Wahlberg in a one-on-one interview in his own documentary series, Wahl Street.
Mark Wahlberg, business mogul.
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

“You know why this show is gonna be such a hit?” Mark Wahlberg says, a slightly manic grin on his face, walking away from the camera after a meeting. It’s the sixth and final episode of HBO’s Wahl Street, so by now we should know, but he answers the question anyway: “‘Cause it’s a fucking shitshow. It’s fucking disastrous. I mean, holy shit. People are gonna love watching me just fucking implode.”

Gutsy to leave that line in a series like Wahl Street, when you have to know critics will scribble it down ferociously. I don’t know if Wahl Street will be a hit, and no, fabulously wealthy movie star Wahlberg hasn’t imploded, but to quote Mark himself: Wahl Street is a fucking shitshow.

Wahlberg is a man of many hats, literal and figurative, and Wahl Street — which oscillates between being a reality show about a famous person and being a self-help pump-up anthem for the rest of us — is extremely eager to make sure we don’t forget. He is a movie star! He used to be a rapper! He owns a lot of businesses! He’s an investor! He’s a family man! He reads books sometimes! He loves God! He really, really loves to work out! And he has a seemingly endless supply of hats, some of which you can purchase from his clothing line!

Wahl Street is an exploration of Wahlberg’s 2020, a shallow dive into what it’s like to be a celebrity who is also trying to have a hand in a bunch of businesses when a pandemic hits. It is not terribly concerned with some specifics of biography, which is perhaps why it leaves out the details of the more sordid parts of Wahlberg’s past — specifically the racist violent attacks he committed as a teen. Decades later, after attaining superstardom, he apologized to one of his victims while seeking a pardon.

But in 2020, the year Wahl Street was filmed, the story resurfaced when he posted a message of support for Black Lives Matter following the death of George Floyd. Presumably, it would have been logistically simple to have Wahlberg address that series of events on Wahl Street, especially since it’s more or less intended to be a story about how to grow. But I suppose some business mind would say it was “outside the scope” of this project. (And every other project he’s ever done.)

And, if we take Wahl Street on its own terms, that’s fair enough. But there sure are plenty of other biographical details included in the series, most of which have already carved a deep groove into the memory of the casual Wahlberg observer. He’s from Dorchester, richly evident from his accent. Youngest of nine kids. As a teenager he was “in music,” as he puts it, as the frontman for Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch. Ran into some trouble — that’s the racial violence, plus issues with substance abuse and addiction, though the series doesn’t get into the details. And — very importantly for the narrative of Wahl Street — overcame his past and decided he would be a better person. Then he became a huge movie star; in 2017, lest we forget, Wahlberg was the highest-paid actor in Hollywood.

Wahlberg touring a clothing factory in Wahl Street.

As part of his quest to always be growing, Wahlberg has also become a many-tentacled business mogul, with particular interest in the fitness and wellness industries. At the outset, Wahl Street’s first episode lists Wahlberg’s businesses: Closest to the Hole (his production company, associated with everything from Boardwalk Empire to Lone Survivor to In Treatment); Aquahydrate (peddling “great tasting high-performance water specially formulated for people with an active lifestyle”); Performance Inspired (which sells protein powders and other fitness supplements); F45 (a chain of gyms); Municipal (a “sport utility gear” clothing brand); Mark Wahlberg Auto Group (which owns several dealerships in, somewhat randomly, Ohio); Unrealistic Ideas (a production company focused on unscripted programming, including Wahl Street); and, of course, Wahlburgers, the franchise “fast casual” burger chain, which he owns with his brothers Paul and Donnie.

That last venture is probably Wahlberg’s most famous, partly because of the reality show Wahlburgers, which ran for 10 seasons on A&E from 2014 to 2019. That show feels like the progenitor of Wahl Street, and maybe its inspiration. It started with the Wahlberg brothers deciding they want to expand their one-shop burger joint and ended with the brothers opening a location in their native Dorchester, having spawned a whole lot of franchises around the country in the intervening years.

Wahlburgers masqueraded as a glimpse into the varied and occasionally glamorous lives of the Wahlbergs (their mother, Alma, is a rather delightful recurring character) while actually functioning largely as advertising for the chain, a not-so-subtle encouragement to would-be franchisees to get in business with these loveable, goofy guys.

The end of every Wahl Street episode includes text that assures the viewer the show is not soliciting its viewers’ investment in Wahlberg’s various business ventures. It feels a touch like an instantiation of the “my T-shirt is raising a lot of questions answered by the shirt” meme, but okay.

But if — if — you take Wahl Street at its word, that it’s not supposed to be selling an investment opportunity to its audience, the alternatives are ickier. Every episode features Wahlberg running around, taking meetings with his business partners (in person and then, when the pandemic hits halfway through, on Zoom), teaching his kids about business opportunities, and spending long stretches on set, shooting movies: one prior to the pandemic, one under Covid-safety conditions.

Wahlberg is amiable and affable, and his partners seem very passionate about what they’re doing. (Only some of his businesses actually factor into the new show: the gym chain F45, the nonfiction production company Unrealistic Ideas, the burger chain Wahlburgers, and the fledgling clothing brand Municipal, which launched its line in the midst of the pandemic, plus a line of natural food convenience stores called Green Zebra that Wahlberg is toying with investing in.)

But there are some truly janky filmmaking choices throughout. The trouble with Wahl Street is that it’s not sure whether it’s a pure vanity project or a Horatio Alger-lite primer on how to succeed in business. In each episode, extremely successful business leaders appear against a white background to proffer bits of wisdom, seemingly related to whatever’s going on in Wahlberg’s life but not directed at him — instead, they’re speaking to us. Those business leaders include everyone from Drybar CEO Alli Web to Hasbro CEO Brian Goldner to former Disney chairman and CEO Michael Eisner.

And the advice they give is ... vapid. I have never led an organization, and my career thus far spans a paltry 15 years, but if I never hear another snippet of this kind of “leadership advice,” it will be too soon. It’s the sort that populates those ghostwritten books about business that are designed to be read in a couple hours on an airplane, all stuff that your average middle school student body president could tell you. The worst offender, by my lights, is UFC president Dana White, who constantly appears on screen to say things like “a lot of people don’t want you to win” and “believe in yourself” and “dive in and go for it, it’s that simple,” plus this gem once the pandemic takes hold:

Going into this pandemic there is nothing but problems every day in business. My philosophy and outlook on it is you not only need to have the vision and be passionate, but you have to be a really good problem solver. Any type of problem that comes your way, you have to have the answers and the solutions.

Or this bit of wisdom, from Janice Bryant Howroyd, CEO of Actone Group:

Hire people thoughtfully into your organization. Because as an entrepreneur, you’re not gonna get a lot of time to build every single person up. But if you hire the right people and then you build them up, it becomes exponential throughout your organization.

I’m not saying any of this is easy; I am CEO of nothing, and that’s to everyone’s benefit. But reciting platitudes on TV and actually showing people how to implement them are two very different things. Wahl Street is firmly in the former camp.

There’s also a bizarre interlude in every episode where some clip from one of Wahlberg’s movies is inserted as a kind of pseudo reaction .GIF to whatever’s happening in his real life — him sliding off a boat in The Perfect Storm after he gets some bad news, for instance. I guess the idea is to remind us that he’s a movie star? As if we could forget.

Mark Wahlberg sits in front of his Mac in his home office.
Wahlberg doing business.

The full series is barely watchable, which is a shame. I can imagine a version of Wahl Street that leans into the lessons Wahlberg is learning, especially because, as the show wears on, some of his investment choices turn out to be bad ones, or his business partners are forced to make difficult choices. In one memorable scene, he stalks with annoyance through Wahlburgers’ corporate headquarters, vacant because of the pandemic, visibly angry that they’d splurged on luxuries for the corporate office when, even before Covid-19, the business was facing financial challenges.

In another notable moment, Wahlberg’s business partner at the clothing brand Municipal, Harry Arnett, brings his wife into the empty Municipal offices after a backer pulls out. He declares that he, Wahlberg, and their other partner are going to fund the line themselves —and thus Arnett will need to take out mortgages and liquidate assets since he’s not as wealthy as either of the other two. The look on his wife’s face says, in essence, Why are you telling me this in front of a camera crew? In the middle of a pandemic? I have no idea either.

But the show can’t be fully about the difficulties of doing business, especially in a pandemic, because it also seems intended to sell us Mark Wahlberg as a Serious Business Guy, and not just a movie star. (This ambition is a bit undercut when in the very last scene of Wahl Street, Wahlberg asks his young son over a casual game of checkers whether Daddy should stick to movies or stick to business, and the boy, staring at the board, says “Movies.”)

The case for the ever-growing business mogul might have been better made if Wahlberg visibly learned things from the experts, or if his “disastrous” mistakes happened earlier in the series, so he could “fucking implode” (an overstatement) and then build back up again. But the elements don’t come together that way, the pacing of Wahl Street is weird, and at the end I had no idea what I was supposed to have learned except that I am not motivated enough to change my life, because I don’t have a business, and, frankly, don’t want one.

I don’t really want to either give a pass to or rag in a personal manner on Mark Wahlberg, father of four, who comes off as very earnest guy. I can believe that he sees investing in all of these businesses as a way to both make money and support things he thinks will help other people’s lives. One gets the sense, however authentic, that he’s trying to atone for his past actions. His apology for racist attacks he committed in his teen years, though overdue, could be sincere. (It doesn’t particularly matter, but he also starred in one of my favorite movies, Boogie Nights, though he seemingly half-jokingly told a group of young people in 2017 that he regretted playing the porn star Dirk Diggler in that movie.)

But I can’t peek into the heart of Mark Wahlberg, the man. I can only look at his public life and the portrait of Mark Wahlberg that Wahl Street paints — a guy who seems to be doing more acting on this reality show than he does when he’s playing someone else in a movie.

And what he’s telling me — what Wahl Street is selling me — is that entrepreneurship, in its own right, is a way to redeem yourself. You find some businesses that can help people, you put your money in, you make a bunch back, you better your station in life, and that your success, in and of itself, is a measure of your moral weight and seriousness.

The thing is, it’s not.

There’s nothing inherently redemptive about being successful in business; indeed, as the saying goes, some of history’s greatest monsters have been very successful businessmen. Some of those figures have even sought to improve their public image by making reality shows about their business acumen. The project of Wahl Street is baffling, and its message is muddled. In fact, a trip back to the drawing board might have revealed an important message buried in the midst of the footage, when Wahlberg’s partner at F45 says, “The why of what you’re doing really matters.”

Find your why for this documentary series, Mark, then get back to us.

Wahl Street premieres on HBO Max on April 15.

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