In the fourth episode of HBO’s new drama Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty, first-time NBA head coach Jack McKinney (Tracy Letts) lets us in on his vision for how he wants to use his new position to transform the way basketball is played. He compares old-school offense to classical music — his narration accompanied by black-and-white footage of early-20th-century basketball games, clips of orchestras playing concert halls and school gymnasiums, and even a chicken clawing aimlessly at the ground — and suggests that while classical can be great, “everyone in the building knows exactly where it’s going.” What McKinney has in mind for the 1979-80 Lakers roster is more like jazz, and as he discusses his improvisational offensive philosophy, we see acid jazz combos in action, color footage of Seventies teams on the fast break, and hundreds of birds soaring furiously in formation. “Everything unpredictable has underlying patterns,” McKinney explains. “And when those patterns become reflex, individuals become an unstoppable force. Or that’s the theory, anyway.”
Though he would not get to fully enjoy the end result of his genius, McKinney’s theory was proven correct. The free-flowing “Showtime”(*) offense that he installed for the Lakers — and, especially, for their generational rookie point guard Magic Johnson (played here by Quincy Isaiah) — would make the Johnson-led squad into five-time champions, revolutionize the way the game is played, and help lift the entire NBA from the fringes of the American sports scene into one of the most powerful cultural forces on the planet.
(*) The series is based on Jeff Pearlman’s book, Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s, but had to go with a different title to avoid confusion regarding HBO’s longtime pay-cable competitor.
As the description of McKinney’s monologue here might suggest, Winning Time — created by Max Borenstein and Jim Hecht and executive produced by Adam McKay, who directed the premiere episode — aims to apply its own controlled stylistic chaos to transform the way television is made and viewed. Like Magic hurling no-look passes to Norm Nixon (played by Norm’s son, DeVaughn Nixon) and Michael Cooper (Delante Desouza) on the run, it moves quickly and with enormous flash. Like the towering Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Solomon Hughes) unfurling his trademark skyhook shot, it can attack with unstoppable force. Will it go on to change and/or conquer its medium in the same way the Showtime Lakers did theirs? Probably not, in part because there’s already a lot of great television — the other HBO show McKay produces, Succession, is the early favorite at this year’s Emmys — and in part because its aesthetic excesses can undercut the storytelling as often as they enhance it.
But just like the Showtime Lakers, it is a hell of a lot of fun to watch.
In some ways, Winning Time feels doubly nostalgic, both for the boys-will-be-boys heyday of men like Magic Johnson and new Lakers owner Jerry Buss (John C. Reilly, in a Talladega Nights/Step Brothers reunion with McKay), and for the premium-cable era that so easily glamorized antiheroic men making bad choices around womanizing, substance abuse, and other sketchy behaviors. After a prologue set on the day in 1991 when Magic was diagnosed with HIV(*), the show proper begins with Buss lounging under silk sheets in the Playboy Mansion, a topless woman lying in bed next to him, a pile of naked people passed out in a nearby room. He is a real estate mogul looking to cash out one empire to build another, convinced there is more glamour and money to be found in the NBA, despite his advisors believing the league is on the brink of folding. He is speaking to us right from the start — other characters will periodically turn to the camera to address the audience, but Buss is our closest friend — about his love of the game, of sex, and of the life he has built for himself. He is an overgrown child with bottomless appetites, and he often comes across to others as a buffoon, thanks to a signature look that includes an elaborate combover, frayed blue jeans, and shirts open right to the gut. He is also a far cannier businessman than people take him for. And despite his behavior, he is enormously charming thanks to the gifts of one John C. Reilly. The joy Reilly brings to his performance is infectious, whether Buss is cleverly outmaneuvering competitors or indulging his many vices, often with his teenage daughter, Jeanie (Hadley Robinson), or bookkeeper mother, Jessie (Sally Field), there to witness.
(*) The prologue is presented without context or explanation for anyone too young or basketball-ignorant to understand what’s happening. It’s one of many choices that suggest Winning Time is at minimum aiming for the casual basketball fan, if not someone who knows exactly what happened to Jack McKinney, or why aging power forward Spencer Haywood (Wood Harris) had beef with McKinney’s longtime assistant Paul Westhead (Jason Segel).
Reilly is so good as to transcend the sniggering, celebratory tone the show often takes around Buss, and to give a human face to its many, many, many different stylistic flourishes. Characters are often introduced with chyrons detailing their personality, so Laker legend-turned-coach Jerry West (Jason Clarke) gets “Has never been happy,” while Magic’s career-long rival, Larry Bird (Sean Patrick Small), struts onto the screen holding a can of Budweiser with a chyron that reads, “You know my fuckin’ name.” When Magic imagines the way his game could mesh with Kareem’s, we see it as both the opening-credits sequence to a Seventies cop show(*) and as period-specific Saturday morning animation that just happens to be R-rated due to his inability to curb his inner dog. And whether it’s done through filters or frequently shifting film stock, the image quality is ever-varying — sometimes crisp, sometimes grainy, sometimes like an old videotape someone left in a hot car while running errands at the mall.
(*) The actual Winning Time title sequence, with Seventies images perfectly cut to the Coup’s “My Favorite Mutiny,” is a banger, recalling the great opening credits to both The Deuce and How To Make It In America (the latter is perhaps the series with the greatest quality disparity in TV history between the credits and the actual show).
Many of these choices are out of the filmmaking toolbox McKay has been dipping into dating back to The Big Short. They can be a lot to sift through in one show, and the style can periodically get in the way of the substance. The changing image quality, for instance, seems to happen without rhyme or reason, often in the middle of scenes, in ways that distract from whatever is happening. The direct addresses to camera tend to work well, though, frequently injecting levity into otherwise serious situations without weakening the drama. But the show is often at its most effective when it dials back the excesses even slightly, like a delicately edited (but still explicit) sex scene between between Magic and his girlfriend Cindy (Rachel Hilson) in a later episode.
The cast is even bigger than the directors’ bag of tricks. There are a whopping 24 cast regulars listed in HBO’s press notes. Some are just playing Lakers benchwarmers, but I haven’t yet mentioned, among others, Adrien Brody (with floppy hair and an even floppier mustache) as player-turned-broadcaster-turned-coach Pat Riley; Tamera Tomakili as Magic’s once and future flame, Cookie; Rob Morgan as Magic’s blue-collar father Earvin Johnson Sr.; Julianne Nicholson as Jack McKinney’s wife, Cranny; or Gaby Hoffmann as Claire Rothman, who runs the Lakers’ arena and indulges Buss’ many whims. And that’s before we get to the ludicrous collection of talent playing small guest or recurring roles: Michael Chiklis as legendary Celtics exec Red Auerbach; Gillian Jacobs as Pat Riley’s therapist wife Chris; Steve Harris as Cindy’s father/Magic’s business manager Dr. Thomas Day; an unrecognizable Rory Cochrane as college coach Jerry Tarkanian, and on and on. Just when you think McKay hasn’t exhausted his contacts list, Mike Epps will turn up as Richard Pryor (who passes his love of freebasing cocaine onto one of the Lakers), or Orlando Jones will cameo as Jerry West’s old teammate Elgin Baylor. Many of them are great in these brief appearances — Chiklis clearly relishes the chance to play the contempt Auerbach holds for a man like Jerry Buss — but some of the parts feel thankless. (HBO rewarded Nicholson for her Emmy-winning Mare of Easttown work with a thin supportive-wife role?)
McKay, Borenstein, and company may have brought in so many ringers to compensate for the fact that most of their Lakers are played by inexperienced actors. There are certain physical requirements needed to seem convincing as basketball superstars, and most working actors tend to be on the short side, so looking outside the usual casting pools was necessary(*). But the rookie performers are good, too. Isaiah and Hughes have passing resemblances to Magic and Kareem, and more importantly capture their essential public-facing qualities: Magic is a people-pleaser who can’t always turn the smile off, while Kareem is aloof and uncomfortable in a world not built for a man his size — nor in a country not built for a man his color.
(*) DeVaughn Nixon, though, has been a working actor since he was a kid (he’s Miles Dyson’s terrified son in Terminator 2: Judgment Day) and has had ongoing roles on shows like Snowfall, Runaways, and The Secret Life of the American Teenager.
Winning Time is smart about race, particularly in depicting the very different receptions that Magic and Bird got from the media and fans, despite having games with a lot in common. (Both had nearly superhuman court vision, for instance.) It’s just as sharp at showing the toll the game takes on older players like Haywood, and former ones like ex-teammates West and Riley — though Jason Clarke and Adrien Brody are given very different tones to play: Clarke cursing up a storm in an exaggerated Appalachian accent, Brody more quietly seething as Riley struggles to find a new purpose in his life. And where the show often gives Jerry Buss’ antics the nudge-nudge, wink-wink treatment, it’s also clear-eyed enough to let us see him the way Jeanie sees him, and to feel queasy when she helps create the famous Laker Girls cheerleading squad to help bring her father’s oversexed fantasies to life. By the time the first season enters its home stretch, it’s clear that some of the early Awesome Dudes Are Awesome tone is setup for a more thoughtful — if still frequently quite funny — examination of this hypercompetitive world and the damaged people hoping a championship ring can fix what they don’t like about themselves.
Despite all the attention-grabbing visual devices and the overstuffed ensemble, Winning Time moves with the kind of pace you’d want for a series about the Showtime Lakers. All the episodes run close to 60 minutes but feel much quicker than that, even with all the characters and subplots they have to service. The series as a whole may be taking its sweet time — by the end of the eighth and final episode (out of 10) critics were given to review, the story hasn’t even made it to the start of the playoffs of Magic’s rookie season, never mind anywhere near that 1991 prologue — but in the moment, you will feel the beat of the same music that Jack McKinney dreamed about when he arrived to coach Magic and Kareem. This isn’t a game-changing drama, but it’s an absurdly entertaining one.
Winning Time premieres March 6 on HBO and HBO Max, with episodes releasing weekly.