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‘Winning Time’ Review: HBO’s Lakers Drama Can be Garish and Grating, but It Puts on a Show

Covering the NBA team's 1980s glory days, Max Borenstein's series is mostly a nostalgia trip for fans, but finds its footing in vetting the cost of victory.

Winning Time Magic Johnson actor Quincy Isaiah HBO

Quincy Isaiah in “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty”

Warrick Page / HBO

Late in the first season of “Winning Time,” former Lakers All-Star guard and short-lived coach Jerry West (Jason Clarke) sits down with rookie phenom Earvin “Magic” Johnson (Quincy Isaiah) after a humbling game. The past and future legends haven’t spent much time together, in part because West resigned as coach soon after Johnson was drafted, and in part because West wasn’t a huge believer in the hyped Michigan State shooter in the first place. Aside from West thinking he’s a showboat who’s too tall to play guard, he also questions Johnson’s unwavering smile.

That smile faces quite a bit of scrutiny over Magic’s first months in Los Angeles. Cookie (Tamera Tomakili), his hometown girlfriend, worries (rightly) that her beau’s seductive grin invites too much (welcome) attention from the opposite sex. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Solomon Hughes) sees the new kid’s unflappably joyous visage as an indicator of Magic’s inexplicable immunity to the racist world all around him.

West first brings up the smile as a negative at a country club while talking with four white colleagues. It’s easy to assume discrimination: They disparage Johnson’s skill and invoke the ranked superiority of Larry Bird, even though the Black athlete beat him in the NCAA title game. Later, in their locker-room conversation, West’s suspicion of Earvin’s “pearly whites” is said to be rooted in shared experience: West thought Magic was too nice.

The coach thought that beaming expression signified a need to be universally adored and if you want to win at the game of basketball, that can’t be the priority. Your only priority is winning. The road to victory is paved in defeat, and losing makes a man miserable — which West knows all too well. Jerry wants to win so badly he’s postponed retirement, vacation, even having a kid with his loving wife, all so he can hover around a team he quit coaching in the hopes of helping them win the NBA Finals. Pointing to his one championship ring, West tells Magic, “I wouldn’t give it up for all the happy in the world.”

This all-encompassing desire is broken down again and again over the first eight episodes of “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty.” HBO’s new drama series bounces from Johnson, to West, to Abdul-Jabbar, to new coach Jack McKinney (Tracy Letts), to future coach Pat Riley (Adrien Brody), all while hovering around its ostensible lead, Jerry Buss (John C. Reilly), the first-time owner whose affectation as a party-loving, fair-weather fan has to be disproved before all these folks believe he, too, can win.

Beyond its considered analysis of what’s lost within an all-consuming drive to win, “Winning Time” is a lot of flash: big names, brazen storytelling, and near-constant nostalgia bait. The premiere, directed by Adam McKay, sees the director at his most excessive and least focused — bouncing between frame-filling close-ups of ’80s-era paraphernalia to fourth-wall breaking narration from a half-dozen characters. But for sports fans (especially Lakers devotees), the 10-episode first season’s unapologetically biased depiction of building a dynasty through near-catastrophic obsession should carry weight. For everyone else, it still puts on a show.

It starts in 1991, when Johnson receives his HIV-positive diagnosis, and flashes back to his pre-draft Lakers courtship, but “Winning Time” really begins in a satin-covered waterbed occupied by Jerry Buss and a half-asleep Playboy model. His wavy blonde hair matted behind his sweaty dome, Buss monologues about the similarities between sex and basketball: They’re both rhythmic, up close and personal; “it’s just you and these other guys out there trying to get a ball into a hoop.” Broken metaphors aside, Buss outlines his two great passions, which soon become the show’s: a kindred relationship emphasized as soon as Jerry stops speaking to his bedmate and starts talking to the camera.

“I’m about to buy a team,” Buss says, before hopping out of bed, getting dressed, and walking through the Playboy mansion, all the while laying the groundwork for his big buy. The NBA isn’t cool. The City of Angels isn’t a big sports town. (“Welcome to sunny Los Angeles: Great for cans, shit for fans.”) But Buss still believes he can turn the Lakers — and the game of basketball — into a hot commodity.

Winning Time HBO Jason Clarke Jerry West actor

Jason Clarke in “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty”

Warrick Page / HBO

Soon, we’re meeting his team, most of whom also speak to the audience — sometimes two at a time, sometimes when other characters can hear them, sometimes not. Among the unruly ensemble introduction, there’s the aforementioned Jerry West, whose volatile first impression is underlined with flashing onscreen text, “Jerry West has never been happy.” There’s Claire Rothman (Gaby Hoffmann), general manager of the Forum (the Lakers’ home court) whose management skills are made clear, but given far less time than the unrelenting sexist degradation she endures. There’s Jeanie Buss (Hadley Robinson), Jerry’s 18-year-old daughter who interns for Claire while coming to terms with her father’s knack for burning through businesses almost as fast as he burns through women.

The random, redundant, in-scene narration is grating (especially when it’s explaining already-obvious metaphors), but the cinematography often exacerbates the early episodes’ chaotic nature. Scenes are often captured as grainy film stock reminiscent of the era’s grittier sun-baked films or as streaky digitized video seen on early VHS tapes. Film (or what looks like film) is the predominant format. There’s color degradation, dust, curling, and even a black perforation mark visible in recurring transition shots. While effective in transporting audiences back in time, rapid cuts incorporating all of these formats can take you out of the story. Scenes cycle through all three while shooting the same two subjects. Other shots are oddly out of focus, and at least one features a shading shift so extreme it creates a continuity issue.

Things settle down after McKay’s first hour as episodes are framed around individual players and staffers. Episode 2, directed by Jonah Hill, digs into West’s anguish over falling short, and Clarke’s mindful performance straddles a perfect line between irate jackass and glutton for punishment. Jeanie’s entry nicely illustrates how the budding executive channeled her frustrations with a pleasure-seeking father into building an arena experience around people with similar predilections. And although Solomon Hughes’ portrayal of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar threatens to become Dennis Haysbert as Pedro Cerrano in “Major League,” the big man’s hour on what led him to the Muslim faith (and how his priorities clash with Magic’s) is handled well.

Winning Time HBO John C Reilly Quincy Isaiah HBO Lakers show

John C. Reilly and Quincy Isaiah in “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty”

Warrick Page / HBO

Buss drives “Winning Time” and Reilly is more than up for the task. While original cast member Michael Shannon’s unrealized work will forever live in our dreams (though perhaps not as prominently as Will Ferrell, who could also have been great if paired with a meticulous director), Reilly’s mix of benevolent showmanship and perpetual longing makes for a natural and rewarding lead. His co-pilot is Isaiah’s Johnson, a former college basketball star and newcomer to TV who carries Magic with the indelible shine seen in that charming smile. Deft at balancing the insecurities of a rookie with the confidence of a star, Isaiah clicks in right away.

By midseason, so does “Winning Time.” The basketball itself is fairly sparse and unconvincing, with lots of close-ups rapidly cut together to create intensity through speed, rather than the crisp, rhythmic competition often discussed off court. But expecting actors to play like NBA stars is an unreasonable ask. The show’s warping of history will undoubtedly rankle hoops aficionados (as it did this Celtics fan). But this is a Lakers show about Lakers legends made by Lakers fans, so what do you expect?

In the end, its dissection of winning overcomes most of the early stumbles and subjective hang-ups. Sports fans who’ve spent years, decades, or longer waiting for their favorite team to win a title are intimately familiar with the obsession driving these protagonists. “Winning Time” doesn’t exactly hold them accountable for abandoning their wives, disappointing their families, or flaking on other responsibilities so much as it breaks down the anger fueling their single-minded quest until it becomes relatable. In the meantime, it’s also wise enough to recognize these men aren’t exactly healthy.

Like gawking fans, “Winning Time” is often content to just watch the Lakers chase titles we already know they’ll win. But once it starts considering all “the happy” that’s sacrificed along the way, those stakes make for a game worth watching.

Grade: B-

“Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty” premieres Sunday, March 6 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO. New episodes will be released weekly.

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