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The “Showtime” Los Angeles Lakers of the 1980s were a unicorn. They were a slick, high-flying team built to entertain Tinseltown, but at the same time, the roster’s transcendent talent provided the substance to accompany the style, leading to NBA titles and helping save the league from the doldrums of the ’70s.
HBO’s Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty, adapted by Max Borenstein and Jim Hecht from the book by Jeff Pearlman, surely favors style. With pilot director Adam McKay leading the way, Winning Time dabbles in alternating photo stock, cheeky title cards, fourth-wall-breaking narration and audacious editing to keep a story told in hour-long chunks from ever dragging, which a series about basketball’s great run-and-gun offense should never do.
Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty
Airdate: 9 p.m. Sunday, March 6 (HBO)
Cast: John C. Reilly, Quincy Isaiah, Jason Clarke, Adrien Brody, Gaby Hoffmann, Tracy Letts, Jason Segel, Julianne Nicholson, Hadley Robinson, DeVaughn Nixon, Solomon Hughes, Tamera Tomakili, Brett Cullen, Stephen Adly Guirgis, Spencer Garrett, Sarah Ramos, Molly Gordon, Joey Brooks, Delante Desouza, Jimel Atkins, Austin Aaron, Jon Young, with Rob Morgan and Sally Field
Creators: Max Borenstein and Jim Hecht
But the approach overseen by Borenstein (The Terror: Infamy) isn’t exclusively style-driven. Sports fans of a certain age are likely to become instantly obsessed with this endearingly wonky examination of a pivotal moment in hoops history. The question, one I can’t immediately answer, is what crossover appeal Winning Time is going to have; while HBO has specialized in dramas about insulated enclaves of fame and wealth, this series is significantly more focused on basketball than Succession is on the media or The Gilded Age is on 19th-century robber barons. Winning Time is able to explain, for example, why it was interesting and even notable that the Lakers had to settle for Jack McKinney (an appropriately erudite Tracy Letts) and his nerdy approach to offense after Jerry Tarkanian (the wonderfully reptilian Rory Cochrane) turned down the coaching gig. But explaining and making uninterested viewers care are two very different things, though nobody will accuse this series of lacking evident effort.
We begin in 1979 with Dr. Jerry Buss (John C. Reilly) putting a mixture of cash and real estate assets up to purchase the Lakers, a potentially bankrupting move to buy into a league on the brink of ruin. Salvation is coming for the NBA in the form of college superstars Larry Bird (Sean Patrick Small), already drafted by Red Auerbach’s (a gregarious, cigar-chomping Michael Chiklis) dynastic Celtics, and Michigan State point guard Earvin “Magic” Johnson (Quincy Isaiah), who could potentially become a Laker thanks to a lucky coin flip. Unfortunately, Lakers coach and NBA legend Jerry West (Jason Clarke) distrusts Magic’s height and his flash, plus the Lakers already have a star point guard in Norm Nixon (Nixon’s son DeVaughn Nixon). And there’s uncertainty as to how established star and future THR columnist Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Solomon Hughes) will respond to teaming up with an ebullient rookie.
The eight episodes sent to critics contrast the briskness of the on-court action with a chronological deliberation that will be nirvana to the immediately engaged and glacial to those whose interest begins and ends with Magic’s no-look passes and Kareem’s sky-hook. It is, for want of a better word, a basketball procedural: Each episode introduces a series of on- and off-court issues and, albeit with some collapsing of the timeline and minor futzing of details, delves into the real-life solutions, sometimes accentuated by flashbacks focusing on a single player or coach. It’s a bizarre comparison, but Winning Time is a bit like The Martian or Zodiac, for basketball.
So you get episodes dealing with the gap between Magic’s athletic cockiness and insecurities tied to his Michigan roots (with Rob Morgan and LisaGay Hamilton exceptional as his parents). Or Kareem’s spiritual awakening and his readiness to find purpose and enlightenment away from basketball. Or the reservoir of self-hatred driving Jerry West, a hard-drinking, anhedonic man who internalized losing over the course of a career looking up at the Celtics.
With a couple of secondary exceptions, Winning Time keeps the real names for all of its participants, and Borenstein’s instinct is to foreground his characters’ myriad warts. The assumption is that the core audience already knows Jerry West as a Hall of Famer and The Logo, so the revelation comes from seeing his moments of myopic rage and self-flagellation, embodied with colorful Rust Belt vernacular but real empathy by Clarke. Buss is a boozy, womanizing buffoon, with Reilly carefully seeding hints of genius in his boyish enthusiasm. Isaiah absolutely nails Magic’s charismatic smile and sing-song cadences, winning enough to offset Borenstein’s interest in his innocent and less-than-innocent youthful missteps — like how Magic’s “giving” personality is illustrated through several graphic cutaways of him performing oral sex on women who aren’t his future wife Cookie (Tamera Tomakili).
Whether it’s Kareem’s aloof spirituality and stoicism, Bird’s bumpkin profanity, Spencer Haywood’s (Wood Harris) surly intensity, assistant coach Paul Westhead’s (Jason Segel) nerdy discomfort or player-turned-announcer-turned-coach Pat Riley’s (Adrien Brody) perpetual inferiority complex, there are few generous depictions here, probably to the benefit of the performances.
Much of the series is in boardrooms and bedrooms, where strategy and business decisions are being debated. McKay, working in a mode that blends the documentary-style intimacy of the Succession pilot and the Complex Concepts for Dummies explainer style of The Big Short, works to put viewers in the middle of these conversations and to spell things out when needed. The quantity and quality of aesthetic flourishes vary from episode to episode, and it isn’t always clear when the cinematographers switch from emulating 8mm and 16mm film stock or early VHS video and other affectations that create the fun impression of a visual collage without really adding anything more tangible than contagious glee.
I loved the specificity of the period sports references and names — expect confusion at all of the Jacks (Kent Cooke, McKinney, Nicholson) and Jerrys (West, Buss, Tarkanian) — and their role in a transitional NBA, and I laughed at most of the snippets of dramatic irony as the series winks at viewers’ awareness of things like Pat Riley’s trademark slicked hair or the racial motivations of introducing the three-point line. These are pell-mell nods that help you forget that, through eight episodes, Winning Time has made it as far as spring 1980 — meaning that Magic’s HIV diagnosis, which starts the series and represents the end of the Showtime era, could be seven or eight seasons away.
Since the show opens in the offseason, it’s a long time before anybody plays any real basketball in Winning Time. But when they do, the series directors — McKay and Jonah Hill are followed by a string of TV veterans — are very clever about how they handle the varied skill sets and heights of their stars, joining the recent Reacher as future textbooks on how to frame tall actors as gigantic. There’s some balletic choreography of the gameplay, and the nicest thing I can say is that even if the athletic endeavors have to be slowed down or edited from small snippets of performance, none of the actors embarrass themselves on the hardwood. Kudos across the board to casting directors Francine Maisler and Kathy Driscoll-Mohler for what couldn’t have been an easy assignment.
Winning Time has a strange approach to the women in its vast ensemble. Jeanie Buss (Hadley Robinson), Jerry’s doe-eyed daughter and eventual successor, and Claire Rothman (Gaby Hoffmann), entrusted by Jerry with making the Forum autonomously profitable, are the closest the series comes to fully rounded female characters and perhaps the show’s most sympathetic figures, along with Sally Field as Jerry’s wise but fragile mother. Most of the women, though, are wives and girlfriends whose sole purpose is to be sounding boards for masculine frailty. The parts are thin, but perplexingly well-cast with the likes of Gillian Jacobs, Julianne Nicholson, Lola Kirke and Sara Ramos, all solid enough to maybe make you forget that they’re defined exclusively by proximity to the men.
Those overqualified co-stars provide somewhat of a counterweight to Jerry Buss’ leering gaze, which dominates so much of Winning Time. Still, there’s not enough depth there to transform the series into more than a rich snapshot of Los Angeles and the sporting world at a particular moment. Bigger issues are examined through some of the characters, but Kareem’s religious and ideological concerns or Jack McKinney’s obsession with the game’s mathematical purity, for example, take Winning Time only to the point of being an entertaining, if familiar depiction of complicated masculine genius. You know, like half of the shows on cable or streaming. Or at least that’s how I imagine those without pre-existing interest might experience it. Me, I’m ready for more.
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