Episode 6 of Winning Time, HBO’s new foray into high-concept appointment television, takes the series to new heights. Jason Segel takes center stage as the story of the Showtime Lakers gets weirder, wilder, and more wonderful.
In a time before cellphones, the delay beyond realization and catastrophe was massive. On the day that Jack McKinney suffers his career-defining injury, Jason Segel’s Paul Westhead and Adrien Brody’s Pat Riley run into each other at the Forum and chat with no clue about the shattering news. There is a funny nod to future adventures when Segal asks Riley if he would ever want to coach the team. Brody nearly winks at the camera in delight, and those of us in on the joke will recognize how portentous the moment is. Amidst their banter, a frantic call from Jack McKinney’s wife breaks into their world and sets the episode on its course.
The few days when Jack McKinney’s life hung in the balance were especially difficult for John C. Reilly’s Jerry Buss, and Winning Time doesn’t pull any punches. Faced with the prospect of financial ruin, an unstable mother, and the shocking loss of his head coach, Buss endures 72 hours of hell. It is occasionally difficult to watch, but seeing the travails of Jerry Buss presents an image that anybody who has ever had to hustle will recognize (and also functions as a callback to The Swan, episode 1 of this series). This episode goes further than any other in showcasing Buss as more than just a swashbuckling, smooth-talking cowboy businessman. We’ve seen bombast from Buss in moments. But in episode 6, we get John C. Reilly emoting on multiple levels. Sensitive moments between Buss, his mother, and his partner Frank give his character greater depth.
Quincy Isaiah’s Magic takes a bit more of a backseat for the second week in a row. However, Isaiah continues to be a revelation, as he portrays Magic Johnson as both neophyte and schemer, innocent and rogue. His brief interaction with Phil Knight of Nike, amid an all-out assault to sign him to a shoe deal, is hilarious. “You won’t regret this,” a converse exec tells Magic when he decides on their imprint. Soon after, a graphic detailing the amount that Magic lost by not signing with Nike is placed onscreen, and Phil Knight deadpans to the camera with a simple “he regrets it.”
Even in the midst of heavy material, Winning Time continues to be incredibly funny. Mike Epps as Richard Pryor is an addition that I didn’t know I needed. Epps manages to catch some of Pryor’s mix of mania and world-weariness in a few hilarious moments. Episode 6’s Director, Tonya Hamilton hits every note perfectly. Episode 6 is by far the most conventional and least showy of the episodes released so far but it is my personal favorite. The interpersonal drama is handled with a light touch, each character has key moments to shine and the comedy is blended well. This episode stands out. That a more story-driven episode is perhaps the best of the season so far is a credit to her talent.
The two stars Reilly and Isaiah are great, but this is Jason Segel’s episode. I’ve studied the Showtime Era for years, and I have never seen Paul Westhead portrayed in such a positive light. Normally, biographers and storytellers present him as an aloof, self-conscious, pseudo-sophisticate who quoted Shakespeare to remind others of his superiority. Here, Westhead’s retreat into Shakespeare’s quotes is a means of gaining refuge from a world he finds too big to face alone. Jason Segel is perfectly cast to play a pensive, conflicted figure. A complex depiction of a man that often receives a bad rap in Lakers history, Winning Time speaks to his ambition, reticence, destiny, and fear. A mixture of qualities that make for immersive, exciting viewing.
For five weeks, Winning Time has showcased prestige television at its finest. The performances, cinematography, and music have all been top-tier and there is no reason to believe this powerhouse will slow down.