There won’t be a third quarter for Winning Time: HBO has decided that tonight’s season-two finale of its Lakers Dynasty drama will actually be the show’s series finale. While the final decision to end the show before season three was made relatively recently, it did not come as a total shock to producers. Network brass had given them a heads-up a couple of weeks into season two that ratings for the series weren’t showing the signs of momentum needed for a renewal, and people associated with Winning Time used social media to begin warning fans that cancellation was a real possibility. The one silver (or is it purple?) lining to the news: Producers were able to film an alternative final scene for tonight’s episode so — mild spoiler alert here — the series did not completely end with the Lakers losing the 1984 NBA Finals.
In the original ending of season two, a version of which was sent to critics earlier in the summer, the action ended with a somber Magic Johnson sitting on the floor of the Lakers locker-room showers and absorbing the team’s heartbreaking defeat at the hands of the Boston Celtics. But in the version which aired on HBO (and streamed on Max), that scene is followed by one set five days later. Team owner Jerry Buss (John C. Reilly) and daughter Jeanie (Hadley Robinson) are shown walking alone on the court at the Forum with Jerry talking about his daughter one day taking control of the team and all they had already accomplished. Viewers then see a montage (set to Pat Benatar’s 1982 hit “Shadows of the Night”) featuring the real-life characters from the show along with updates on what they went on to achieve. The new ending was filmed back in January, long before the show was canceled and prior to the start of the WGA and SAG strikes.
In an exclusive interview, Winning Time executive producer Kevin Messick (Succession) talked with Vulture about getting an advance heads-up from HBO, which allowed producers time to prepare — somewhat — for the not-at-all-ideal possibility of their show ending after season two. He also dives into how the show worked to address season-one criticisms from some of the subjects portrayed in the show, when they knew its future could be in doubt, and whether there’s any possibility of another platform picking up a potential season three.
I’d seen social-media posts during season two indicating Winning Time might be struggling to get the sort of tune-in HBO wanted to see, so I’m guessing the decision to not bring the show back wasn’t a total shock. How long had you been aware it was in danger?
There were never any guarantees in today’s marketplace of a subsequent season, so the planning for the “What if” scenario — if this was not just a season finale but the series finale — was from the conversation we had back in January while we were still in production. We got a call from HBO, whom we’ve been partnered with for years. They said, “Think about it so that you have the option while you’re still in production to figure out how it might end if, sadly, that was the end of it.” So we did get a chance to prepare, which we appreciated. But to be clear, we never planned creatively to end at the ’84 finals.
The heads-up in January gave you the chance to craft the ending viewers saw in what is now the HBO series finale, right?
It was a creative problem that we needed to come up with a solution for: What would [an ending after two seasons] look like? Whether we liked it or not, it was a problem that we had to solve. And so we prepared before the strike, and delivered to HBO, two different versions of the ending so that HBO would have both options by the time the show started airing and ratings came in and reviews and all that.
So the scene with Jerry and Jeanie Buss that we see at the end …
We shot that in January. It was a new scene created to directly address the question that HBO gave us. Then there’s an epilogue that runs with shots from the show that is, I think, powerful and emotional. It charts the successes of everybody that you’ve met along the way. It could have run at the end of any season. But it works no matter how long we got to make the story because the success and the accomplishments of each of our characters are true no matter what year it airs.
Did John C. Reilly and Hadley Robinson know they were shooting a possible series-finale scene?
Yep. We were transparent and honest that this was kind of a safety valve in case things don’t go the way we want them to go.
Did you and the creators have a number in mind for how many seasons you were going to need to tell the story you wanted to tell?
I think with our creators, Max Borenstein and Jim Hecht, and with Rodney Barnes and my partner Adam McKay, there were more stories to tell for sure. I think we always took it season by season. Before the strike happened, we had just started to talk about what would’ve happened in season three, but all that was curtailed and cut short. All I can say is I don’t think there was a magic number of seasons, but if you read Jeff Pearlman’s book, and the subsequent books that he wrote about the Lakers afterward, there are definitely more stories to tell.
The series began with Magic Johnson about to get his HIV diagnosis, but the show will now end without having explored that pivotal moment. Was the plan to get into that whenever the show had its final season?
I don’t think it was a literal time marker where that was going to be the end of the story. I think it was a creative choice that Max put into the pilot script, and that Adam, who directed the pilot, really liked. It kind of grounds the story with this iconic moment of Magic having to exit basketball far too soon as you start to dig into the beginnings of what that story was.
But is it safe to say that it’s something that you would’ve explored at some point?
Perhaps. I mean, again, it’s season by season. That was 12 years into his career. We are just at ’84 right now in season two. Each season is a tricky balancing act of time and facts and gameplay. I think we succeeded more than we failed at it. It definitely feels like the reviews and the audience response this season has been great. But we’re a big, expensive show, so we always knew that the ratings would have to achieve a certain level for it to make sense.
Did launching during the strikes have an impact on promoting season two? Obviously HBO has the ability to spend more for marketing, and the Max app can lead audience to the show, but not having the cast out there to promote the episodes each week probably made a difference.
One hundred percent. We were able to do our junket right before the strike, but we have a big ensemble cast — the Oscar-winning movie stars and new actors — that are all exciting to talk to when you promote a show like ours. It’s not centered on one person. We have a lot of assets to help promote the show and we weren’t able to employ any of them. Yeah, that was definitely a frustration for us.
Is there any possible way to shop season three of the show to another platform? Would HBO even let you do that?
We haven’t really dug into that. I’ll say this: We’ve figured out a way, I think stylistically and creatively, to capture the Lakers at this time. There was kind of no better advocacy than what we got in an interview from Jeanie Buss, who we were able to finally sit down with last week. [She] loves the show, misses her father when she watches it, is kind of wowed by the detail, is blown away by the performances of our younger actors like Quincy Isaiah and Solomon Hughes. When I showed her the two different endings, just so that she knew what was coming, she had a pit in her stomach because she lived through the loss in ’84. The first thing she said is, “You can’t end there!” And then I showed her [the ending which aired], and she teared up seeing both the scene with her and her father, and the accomplishments that everybody went on to achieve, including her. I know it’s effective because the person that was in the room where it happened was affected by it. But, again, it wasn’t where we wanted to land.
So are you completely shutting the door on making more seasons somewhere else?
I think the plan is this: If the universe wants more Lakers, the universe knows where to reach us.
You clearly had Jeanie’s support by the end of the show. But some other famous Lakers weren’t as happy with the series. What’s your response to their critiques?
We did this season to kind of answer some of those questions. To every journalist that reviewed the show, we prepared companion guides that went through the bigger plot points of each episode individually and the sources that we use. Everybody involved in this, all the real people, almost everybody’s written autobiographies. There’s tons of press and research. This season we decided to show our work. We also made them available to the public on the HBO site so that if there were things where you’re like, “Oh, I don’t remember that,” you can go to the companion guide. For the most part, I think we’ve hit most of the major beats. The show is a love letter to basketball and to the Lakers and to their success and their rise. That was the whole reason and the inspiration for making the show. It captured a place and a time in sports history, in entertainment history, in Los Angeles history. Those were the driving factors.
Is there ever any regret that you didn’t title the series Showtime, like the book on which the show was based? Did that get scrapped simply because there’s a rival premium cable network called Showtime?
Yeah, it’s really simple. We got a call from [HBO chief] Casey Bloys saying, “You can’t call it Showtime.” We struggled with titles for a while and then landed on Winning Time, which we like.
Speaking of Casey, what’s your relationship like in the wake of this decision? You’ve done multiple shows with his team, including Succession, and the company you run with Adam McKay has a long-term deal with HBO, as do the writers and lead director.
We love working with Casey and Francesca Orsi [HBO’s program chief] and their drama teams across Succession and Winning Time and the next round of shows when the strike is over that we’re planning on making as our next priority. Adam’s relationship extends back even further than mine, back to Eastbound and Down. We have nothing but love and appreciation and support for all of them. I think we all had hoped that the show would take off in a bigger way than it did, but, again, we’re really, really proud of the two seasons we were able to make.
Was HBO transparent with you about the show’s ratings performance? I know the Nielsen numbers are public, but the streaming data on Max isn’t. Did they let you know how it was doing in any concrete way?
They’re very transparent. The Sunday-night viewing is the smallest percentage of how many people ultimately watch a given episode. It builds over time. A lot of people like to wait and binge more of it so that they can watch it all together, or sometimes they’ll wait for the whole thing to air. They shared all of the information, as they’ve always done on our shows, week to week. Casey had called me a couple of weeks into season two, as a friend, and just said, “It’s not looking good.” So it wasn’t a surprise for the final decision based on how it was performing. How it ultimately performs on the platform over time, who knows? Who knows. That’s where I leave it up to the universe.
Do you think it was the season-two performance that caused HBO to cancel the show, or was it already struggling during season one?
I think that the swing that Casey and Frannie took on the show was ordering season two. Season one was good; I think the ratings were okay, as they would say to you as well. I think season two was where we were taking our bigger swing with their support. I’m proud of the show that we made, but our inability to promote the show despite getting better reviews than we did in season one was — it was frustrating.
Even though it’s not a show with dragons or expensive stunts, the budget for Winning Time was not small because of the cast and the period sets. Do you think a season three of the show could be attempted if you found a way to somehow lower the costs by, say, 25 percent?
What Sally Richardson-Whitfield, our director, and Todd Banhazi, our [cinematographer], did in kind of recreating the 1984 finals, it’s great — and it’s not cheap. I think there’s a level of production value on the show from both a sports perspective and a period perspective that is expensive. We know how to make the show really, really well, and if somebody wants to ask about how to make it a little cheaper, they can call us.