Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty is the Harlem Globetrotters of TV shows, lots of flash but are they really serious? Presumably intentionally, everyone in the show is either rude, crude, or with attitude, or all three. Seriously, Gentleman Jerry West curses like a sailor and breaks things like a toddler? Mama Johnson, so insulated in her Midwestern Lansing, Michigan, asks if there are any churches in Los Angeles. Jack Kent Cooke orders Claire Rathman to expose more cleavage so prospective purchaser, Jerry Buss, will be distracted from declining attendance numbers. Overall, Episode One of this ten-part series on HBO Max plays more like a tell-all, no one’s dirty secrets are safe.
The Big Short made me a big fan of Adam McKay, the hit-job of Vice less so. As director of the first episode, Winning Time plays more like the former with actors talking to the camera, as if the audience is too dumb to figure out what’s going on. The opening scene shows Magic at a hospital/clinic on 11/5/91, leaving by the back door, his driver crying, without explanation, unless you know the date of his AIDS diagnosis.
Winning Time then jumps to 1979 with Jerry Buss at the Playboy Mansion in bed explaining to a disinterested, naked female that “two things make me believe in God, sex and basketball. But, young people, hip people, fashionable people haven’t heard of the NBA.” He’s determined to make pro basketball entertainment. Let the jiggle begin! Certainly, it’s early but Winning Time only gets 3.5 Gavels thus far, although it’s Rotten Tomatoes rating sits at 87% with an early 8.7/10 IMDb score.
Jack Kent Cooke, a nasty franchise owner if there ever was one, needs to sell the Lakers to pay off his divorced wife. Jerry Buss has the real estate to pay half the $67.5 million purchase price but only eighteen million of the necessary cash. Who wants to join a league nearly in bankruptcy, anyway? With Larry Bird going to the Celtics, Buss wants Magic Johnson and he wants him bad. Jerry West, thinks he’s too tall, too much of a showboat, and smiles too much. Besides, the Lakers already have All Star point guard, Norm Nixon. In a one-on-one contest with Nixon, Magic has doubts about whether he is ready for the NBA. Is Buss’ dream of Showtime in LA about to fall apart?
As a man with a vision, Jerry Buss wants movie stars at his games, not just fans. As part salesman, part hustler, John C. Reilly (Licorice Pizza) frenetically dashes across the screen, never doubting himself. Daughter Jeanie (Hadley Robinson, seen in Little Women) learns from the experiences of Claire Rothman (Gaby Hoffmann), a woman certainly familiar with sexual harassment. At 6’3″, Quincy Isaiah needs a little fancy camera work to be 6’9″ Magic Johnson, but he has a nice smile. Surely, he’ll “grow” into the role.
Slate headlines that Winning Time has an Adam McKay Problem. “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.”
“Winning Time offers an unvarnished and sometimes unflattering look at the players, coaches, and personnel that helped the Lakers win five championships in the ‘80s. Perhaps that’s why none of them participated in the making of the series.” Time Magazine
Obviously, the Laker Girls are an important part of Showtime. Yet, the focus seems more on attracting juvenile boys to the series than a serious attempt at basketball history. Is it true that the 1979-1980 season doesn’t begin until episode five?
“Although ’80s-style excess clearly accounts for much of the sizzle, this exercise feels like a no-look pass that skips out of bounds.” CNN.com
“Winning Time seems so intent on insisting that it’s a fun show that it neglects the fundamentals.” Variety
McKay offers that Winning Time is a show about characters exorcising their demons. Maybe he doth protest too much. On the surface, this seems to be a good story, not so well done.