Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty, the HBO series about the late-’70s-to-early-’80s transformation of the Los Angeles Lakers, is about as subtle as leaping over two big men to deliver a decisive slam dunk in an NBA playoff game. It’s showy and a little arrogant, brash and aggressive, urgent and quickly paced when the moment calls for it. It can be a little much until you get used to it, and even then, it’s still a little much. But once you get hooked into the story of how a struggling team reinvented itself and the NBA experience, you may find it hard to look away, even though its pleasures run more surface level than deep.
“If there’s two things in this world that make me believe in God, it’s sex and basketball,” announces Dr. Jerry Buss, soon-to-be-owner of the Lakers, in an early Winning Time scene. He’s in bed next to a topless blonde woman, but he’s not really talking to her as much as he is to us. Buss, played by John C. Reilly with enough brio to somewhat undercut the sleaze, is one of several characters who puncture the fourth wall to address the audience. That aesthetic choice comes directly from the Adam McKay Style Guide to Bravado Filmmaking. (McKay, director of Don’t Look Up and The Big Short, is an executive producer and directed the show’s pilot.) It’s not the only one.
Throughout Winning Time, there are deliberately jumpy edits, bits of documentary-style imagery, flashes of actual footage from the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s, brief experiments with animation, and occasional splashes of text that appear on screen. In one scene, when Lakers coach Jack McKinney (a rigidly focused Tracy Letts) tries to sketch out a play that operates according to his constant-motion offense, the arrows leap off the page and swirl around McKinney’s body as he levitates just above his chair. This is a show that can’t sit still for even a second, one that at times appears to have done a line of cocaine right before the opening credits. The visual patina, which is just as conspicuous as these other techniques, might best be described as Late-’70s Sepia Haze. It is purposely grainy as a nod to its era and washed out frequently by the blinding L.A. sun. Even if you watch Winning Time in HD, it will still look like an old glitchy videotape or a 1980 broadcast coming through with cloudy reception on a TV with rabbit ears.
This whole sensibility screams “self-indulgent show-off,” which can be grating, especially at first, but also makes sense given the nature of the story being explored. Once Buss takes over the Lakers, his primary goal is to make the game and the experience of attending games flashier and sexier. The shorthand for Buss’s approach was “showtime,” which inspired the name of the book by Jeff Pearlman on which this ten-episode project is based. (Presumably owing to a certain premium-cable competitor, HBO and the creators of the series, Jim Hecht and Max Borenstein, went another way with their title.) Going over the top acted as a guiding principle for the franchise during that rebuilding phase, and the series follows that lead.
The first episode, which debuts Sunday, opens on a serious note in November of 1991, shortly after Magic Johnson (Quincy Isaiah) has gotten the news that he is HIV-positive. Nurses look at him with sad, judging eyes as he exits the doctor’s office, and his manager bursts into tears as soon as they’re in the car, all of which suggests we’re being set-up for a cautionary tale. But then the story flashes back to 1979, to that scene with Buss in bed with a blonde at the Playboy Mansion, and “cautionary” gets thrown to the wind. Pretty soon, Buss, whose finances are (understatement alert) not totally in order, is finalizing his deal to buy the team from Jack Kent Cooke (Michael O’Keefe), working to woo superstar Earvin “Magic” Johnson Jr. from the NCAA-champion Michigan State Spartans, and trying to smooth relations with the squirrelly coach who eventually becomes a team executive, Jerry West (Jason Clarke, all hardheadedness with a West Virginia twang).
While Winning Time is very much an ensemble piece, Buss and Johnson are its two central figures. If those parts were miscast, the whole enterprise would have disintegrated. Fortunately, here they are not. Taking over after Michael Shannon dropped out of the role, Reilly knows exactly how to convey Buss’s mix of oily narcissism and affable charm in a way that makes it compelling, if sometimes uncomfortable, to spend so much time in his presence. With a wild swirl of thinning hair that he twists and Aquanets into a dome-covering clump and shirts so far unbuttoned they make his bare torso look like a V pointing toward his nether regions, this character could have come across as a cartoon or a despicable villain. To be fair, there are elements of both in him — Buss is a very flawed man — but Reilly lays plain his absurdities and amorality while shaping him into a complete human
An actor portraying Magic Johnson must possess certain qualities: significant height (if possible), charisma, and a likability mixed with an obvious desire to please. He also needs a smile that can light up a room the minute he sets foot inside the door. Isaiah, making his major television debut here, has all of that going for him. His grin doesn’t just light up a room, it could power an entire metropolis. It’s impressive how easily he slides into Magic’s sneakers — Converse, for the record, when he could have signed with Nike. Yes, the show addresses this terrible mistake on Magic’s part.
Honestly, it feels like there’s barely any major ground the series doesn’t cover. All tackled here: Johnson’s rivalry with Larry Bird (Sean Patrick Small) and the team’s hatred of Bird’s Boston Celtics; the fluid, run-and-gun offensive strategy that McKinney instituted and that became the de facto style of NBA play; the struggles of the stoic and proud team leader, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Solomon Hughes); the calculated introduction of both the Laker Girls, as led by Paula Abdul (Carina Conti), and the presence of Hollywood celebrities, courtside at every game, which gave the Lakers extra buzz as the calendar turned to 1980.
Some of the relatively lesser-known personalities are the most relatable, including Paul Westhead (Jason Segel), the professorial, out-of-his-depth assistant to McKinney who, alongside future Lakers coach Pat Riley (Adrien Brody), is suddenly thrust into a role he isn’t quite ready for; Claire Rothman (Gaby Hoffmann), the super-organized manager of the Lakers’ arena, the Forum, who has to cater to Buss’s constant demands; Buss’s daughter Jeanie (Hadley Robinson), who works for Rothman and is constantly trying to prove she’s worthy despite the obvious nepotism factor, and his mother, Jessie (Sally Field bringing all her spitfire skills to the table), who has been keeping her son’s finance’s semi-on-track for years.
While some viewers may be most titillated by Winning Time’s late disco-era partying and nudity, it’s the well-executed game sequences and nitty-gritty basketball talk that turn me on. I love that this series devotes minutes to observing strategy sessions and Laker practices where the guys try to undo years of playing traditional, slower basketball. A lot of workplace series — and in this case, yes, basketball is work — address career issues without ever getting into the weeds of the work itself. Winning Time shows us the late nights spent studying plays, early morning shootarounds, and locker-room arguments that constitute a day at the Lakers’ office. That is much appreciated.
The series is less effective at addressing the social issues intertwined with how the NBA did its business 40-plus years ago. Winning Time certainly addresses the barely veiled racism of the era: In his opening monologue, Reilly’s Buss acknowledges that ticket sales are down and notes, “To most people, the biggest image problem is that we’re too dark,” at which point a photo of Black NBA players appears onscreen. Which: yiiikes. It does better on this front when it turns its attention to Abdul-Jabbar, his focus on justice, and his concern that someone as perpetually happy as Johnson doesn’t seem fazed by the ongoing oppression of Black people in America. More than once, the show acknowledges the racism at play in the rivalry between Bird and Johnson, yet it also feels like it could have dug more meaningfully into how these issues affect the players.
That goes double for its handling of the rampant misogyny both within the Lakers organization and between Buss and Johnson and the many women they deem conquests. To the show’s credit, there are a lot of strong female characters without whose support it’s obvious that many of the men, most notably Jerry Buss, would have crashed and burned a long time ago. But the discomfort that leaders like Rothman feel in certain situations is conveyed mostly via eye rolls. And while Jeanie has a profound case of the “ewwws” whenever her father’s many indiscretions come up, there’s a sense, at least in the eight episodes made available to critics, that she’s more inclined to cater to his needs than to express her discomfort.
Maybe that’s true to how these individuals would have comported themselves at the time. But Winning Time would have been been more groundbreaking if it let us into the heads of these women as often as it does into those of the men. As it stands, this HBO series tells a messy, pulsating, occasionally problematic, but mostly entertaining version of the molding of a legendary basketball team. It’s not necessarily enlightening, but it is certainly a show.
Correction: This article has been updated to reflect the correct geographic origin of Jerry West’s accent.