Television

HBO’s Lakers Show Has an Adam McKay Problem

Winning Time is smug, star-studded, and feels destined to be another hit.

Reilly as Buss smiles and points at Isaiah as Johnson smiling and holding up his Lakers jersey at a podium in a grainy still from the show
John C. Reilly as Jerry Buss and Quincy Isaiah as Magic Johnson in Winning Time. Warrick Page/HBO

Making a 10-hour prestige cable miniseries must be such an expensive and time-consuming endeavor that you’d think at some point during the process someone might firmly pose the question: “What, exactly, are we trying to do here?” This thought entered my mind repeatedly while watching HBO’s Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty, the first episode of which premieres this Sunday. Winning Time is a watchable show that doesn’t seem to have any other compelling reason to exist other than to be watched. Its tone is broadly comedic, but it’s not actually very funny; it’s a historical period piece that doesn’t seem that interested in history, or at least accuracy; it’s a show about basketball that’s really a show about America, or capitalism, or guys who fuck, or something. It’s a show about one of the most interesting subjects I can imagine that seems to fundamentally misunderstand what actually makes that subject interesting.

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Winning Time starts off promisingly, with a cold open set in 1991 as Lakers star Magic Johnson receives his HIV diagnosis. This scene transitions into a terrific opening credits sequence set to the Coup’s “My Favorite Mutiny.” We then move back in time to 1979, as prospective Lakers owner Jerry Buss (John C. Reilly) delivers an overwritten monologue likening basketball to sex while lounging in bed with a young, naked blond woman.

It’s around here that the troubles start. Winning Time’s first episode was directed by Adam McKay, who also serves as an executive producer on the series. McKay didn’t write the show (it was created by Jim Hecht and Max Borenstein, and based on Jeff Pearlman’s bestselling book Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s), but Winning Time showcases many of the most grating tendencies of McKay’s recent work. So many different characters break the fourth wall and address the camera, and so frequently, that the show’s narrative coherence is undermined from its opening minutes. The editing is pointlessly flashy, with jump-cuts and split screens interjected into otherwise banal exchanges between characters. Obvious subtexts are rendered as text, sometimes literally in the form of title cards that blare onto the screen. The sum effect is a smug brand of “comedy” that congratulates you for being in on the joke while not really bothering to make many jokes.

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Compounding the tonal and storytelling inconsistencies of Winning Time is how the show actually looks. In order to achieve “period” veracity, the filmmakers alternately employ the visual aesthetics of grainy 8 mm and 16 mm film stock and old-fashioned Betacam tapes. The novelty of this is initially interesting but quickly grows distracting, as there’s no apparent logic to when and why each style is applied. (There are many times when the format changes from one shot to the next within the same scene, an effect so jarring it can feel like a continuity error.)

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All of this is a shame, because beneath all the hyperactive razzle-dazzle, Winning Time boasts a handful of terrific performances, starting with Quincy Isaiah, the screen newcomer cast as Magic Johnson himself. Magic is such a famous and charismatic figure that the part could easily lend itself to impersonation rather than interpretation, but Isaiah gives a remarkably assured and sensitive performance. Jason Clarke is similarly fantastic as Jerry West, capturing The Logo’s depressive, tormented perfectionism with a deft combination of humor and pathos. And Jason Segel and Tracy Letts do great work as Paul Westhead and Jack McKinney, respectively, the visionary apprentice-teacher coaching duo whose relationship grows strained after McKinney suffers a serious accident.

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Other performances are less successful. Many of the show’s issues are embodied in the work of John C. Reilly himself, a fantastic actor who’s saddled with a character who never really comes together. Reilly’s Buss vacillates between an almost vaudevillian comic presence and the show’s putative dramatic focus, with far too little shading in between. Reilly is a famously versatile performer, equally at home in comedic and dramatic contexts, but expecting him to do both within the same role is a high-wire act that requires a much better script than he’s given here.

The show’s approach to sex—and there’s a lot of sex—feels similarly disjointed. The show’s fourth episode attempts to bring a critical eye to Buss’ womanizing, but it rings hollow after all the ogling of naked women the show itself has indulged in up to that point. More vexing is the show’s depiction of Magic Johnson’s sexual exploits, which are always imbued with ominousness due to the show’s choice to open on the star’s HIV diagnosis. This quickly starts to feel like a rehash of retrograde notions of AIDS being retribution for irresponsibility and moral carelessness. (“You run through girls like they’re nothing. Because to you, that’s what they are,” Johnson’s future wife Cookie admonishes him at one point, a god-awful line and one of way too many examples of female characters on the show primarily functioning as scolds of men.)

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In many ways Winning Time feels like a throwback to an earlier, pre-prestige era of the pop culture miniseries, a lineage of works like The Jacksons: An American Dream or The Beach Boys: An American Family. Shows like these were perfectly entertaining, but they were neither great history nor great filmmaking, and were mostly intended to sell a half-dozen hours’ worth of prime-time network ads through the power of nostalgia. Winning Time has plenty of boobs and butts and people saying “fuck” to each other, but its historical inquiry never gets much more complex than “remember when?”

This brings us to perhaps the most flummoxing aspect of Winning Time, which is the question of whom exactly it’s for. For a series about one of the most famous basketball teams in history, Winning Time shows remarkably little actual basketball. The 1979–80 regular season doesn’t even start until the show’s fifth episode. The eighth episode (the last one made available to critics) ends shortly after the All-Star break.

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Given that the show has signaled that it’s going to end in 1991, and that the Lakers won four more titles after 1980, and that the Showtime era’s third-most-famous player, Hall of Famer James Worthy, wasn’t even drafted until 1982, focusing so much on the earliest days of the dynasty is an odd choice. (A second season is reportedly in the works but seems likely to focus on the early-2000s three-peat teams, which—well, for the love of God, do not let this writers room anywhere near the subject of Kobe Bryant.) In the absence of much on-court action, Winning Time’s focus on behind-the-scenes machinations—hirings and resignations, squabbles over roster construction, the nitty-gritty of Buss’ finances—seems mostly designed to hold the interest of NBA history die-hards, many of whom will already know this story.

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Winning Time is so captivated with its own style that it misapprehends what made its subject exciting in the first place. There’s a restless, frantic quality to the show that seems to want to pay tribute to the run-and-gun style of the Showtime Lakers themselves, but those teams weren’t great because they were a bunch of devil-may-care loose cannons. They were ridiculously controlled, and their thrilling, up-tempo style was only possible because the players enacting it—starting with Magic Johnson—were preternaturally intelligent and disciplined in execution. Winning Time feels more like watching a bunch of middle schoolers trying to fling no-look passes and ill-fated lobs to each other at recess, the occasional moments of connection overwhelmed by a general atmosphere of chaos.

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I’m sure Winning Time will find a viewership, and I can already hear a chorus of nostalgic NBA fans chiding me for being overly critical of a show that’s mostly just OK. But as someone who loves basketball and admires much of McKay’s earlier work, I view Winning Time as a frustrating missed opportunity. McKay recently gave an interview to Vanity Fair in which he disclosed a falling-out with longtime friend and collaborator Will Ferrell over the casting of the show. (Ferrell had wanted to play Buss, and was hurt when McKay went instead for Reilly, who’s Ferrell’s best friend.) More than once while watching Winning Time I was reminded of Semi-Pro, the extremely silly 2008 Ferrell vehicle about a fictional ABA team set in roughly the same time period as Winning Time. Semi-Pro isn’t a great movie by any stretch, but at least it knew what it was and what it was out to do. Winning Time evokes an iconic moment in Lakers history, just not the one it wants to.

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