Winning Time: The Rise of the Laker Dynasty is the newest HBO bid for TV excellence. Based on Showtime, a book by Jeff Pearlman, the show chronicles the moves that turned The Los Angeles Lakers from lovable also-rans to the sport’s preeminent franchise.
Winning Time doesn’t begin with a bang. Instead, the HBOmax series begins with the first ripples of a shockwave that would jolt the NBA: Magic Johnson’s announcement that he was HIV positive. This is a curious decision, but it follows sound narrative principles. Adam McKay and co. intend to say something through Winning Time, and pulling punches is antithetical to that agenda. Most basketball fans know the end of the Showtime story and the tragedy it entails. But seeing it displayed so starkly at the beginning of a show that advertises sex, glamour, wealth, and excess is a striking declaration of purpose.
I love sports movies and TV shows, but I acknowledge many of them have similarities. These stories are still effective but mostly as genre pieces. Winning Time seeks to change that, and it succeeds. Impressive visuals, technical wizardry, on-point performances, and a story that doesn’t quite let you take a breath mark Winning Time as a cut above the rest. Everything about this pilot rocks, and the show should appeal to Laker fanatics, nostalgia addicts, and prestige TV aficionados alike.
The look of the series is the first thing that comes to mind. Instant immersion is the name of the game. From the first images, I was instantly transported as the world of the ’80s looks stunningly alive. The sumptuous quality of the outfits, the automobiles, and vistas is a credit to incredible production design.
The camera work is also standout. Quick cuts, differing angles, and fast-paced movements make the 50-minute runtime feel substantially shorter. This kinetic filmmaking is what has been missing from so much of the rehashed nostalgia fare that so many filmmakers have served up over the last few years. Passion and integrity drip from the pores of this show. The camera switches between a soft nostalgic lens and the real world—almost as if to show the difference between nostalgia and the present. It comes off as an ode to the status of myths in the here and now. Winning Time is a labor of love, and it is obvious.
Adam McKay (who directed this episode) makes great use of the 4th wall break as a narrative device. More than just being an affectation, speaking directly to the audience has the narrative value of an exposition dump without the clunky mechanical quality that period pieces sometimes feel bound to deliver. The fourth wall breaks also serve as a key source of humor, and I found myself laughing out loud in several places. These brief moments directed to the audience key us into the jokes and set up expectations for moments that pay off immensely.
The camerawork, sumptuous production design, and alluring music are all secondary ingredients for a successful show, but ultimately Winning Time stands or falls on performances and casting. John C. Reilly’s Dr. Buss is slick and charming—the epitome of the playboy businessman. Jason Clarke as Jerry West is probably the funniest part of the first episode. His cartoonish angst is delightfully over the top, and he and Bill Sharman (Brett Cullen) play off each other fantastically. Newcomer Quincy Isaiah as Magic Johnson is an inspired choice. Isaiah has the charm to burn, and he looks just enough like Magic to add an aura of believability. He holds his own with Reilly and a fantastic Rob Morgan (Earvin Johnson Sr) in two pivotal emotional scenes.
McKay and show creators Max Borenstein and Jim Hecht promise a tale that excavates the intersections of capitalism, greed, success, and race. And Episode 1 provides seeds of an exploration that looks to be an entertaining watch in the way every pilot should. The seeds of conflict, character, and catharsis are added in slowly, and I am pumped to see more.
In summation, I’ve read “Showtime” by Jeff Pearlman several times, and I anticipated this show about as much as any series that HBO has announced. I’ve been a lover of the NBA since I started collecting Muggsy Bogues, Larry Johnson, and Vlade Divac stamps as a kid. I’ve been a Lakers fan since I first heard the name, Kobe. I’ve got 4 Lakers in my NBA 5 of all time (KAJ, LBJ, Magic, and Kobe). I’m the target audience, and HBOmax has hit the target. Winning Time is a must-watch on several levels. I’m excited to see more of these characters, and my only complaint is that I have to wait a week for more.