Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty

Directed by: Payman Benz, Tanya Hamilton, Jonah Hill, Damian Marcano, Adam McKay, and Salli Richardson-Whitfield
Distributed by: HBO

Written by Alexander Reams


Towards the end of the first season of “Winning Time,” there is a moment between seasoned veteran Kareem Abdul-Jabar (Solomon Hughes, who should win all the awards for his performance) and Magic Johnson (a truly electric Quincy Isaiah) where Abdul-Jabar teaches the Johnson his famous “skyhook” method of scoring and how spiritual he views it. While Abdul-Jabar is spiritual in his personal and professional life, Johnson is his most spiritual when he’s on the court. This moment was the culmination of their contentious relationship that began earlier in the season with Abdul-Jabar had Johnson (the rookie) bring his paper (organized in a specific way) and orange juice (prepared in a specific way). 

This theme of contention is constant throughout the show, Jerry Buss’ (John C. Reilly) fighting with his partner Frank Mirani (Stephen Adly Guirgis), Buss fighting with Claire Rothman (Gaby Hoffman), Buss fighting with Jerry West (Jason Clarke in ultimate caricature form but still hilarious), Buss fighting with his mother Jessie Buss (Sally Field, the emotional backbone of Buss), basically, Buss fights with everyone, the people he fights with the least are the team itself. His relationship with Magic is not exactly father-son, more along the lines of Stromboli and Pinnochio, Buss is using Magic, and Magic might know this but he doesn’t care, he is famous, and Buss has what he wants, but we also see what he loses. 

And what he loses is both physical and emotional, at the start of the series he loses his hometown girlfriend Cookie (Tamera Tomakili), and that toll is seen throughout, trying to find emotional fulfillment through a slew of other women, culminating in a drawer full of ladies underwear, his obsession with being the best and being a star, and winning as many games as he can, Johnson continually tries to find fulfillment with these things, to the point of infecting his fellow teammates with this energy. 

Beneath all of this energy, “Winning Time” boils down to one thing: winning, whether through brilliant casting, Jason Segel as Assistant/future Head Coach Paul Westhead, Adrien Brody as future Head Coach Pat Riley, and Tracy Letts as Jack McKinney (whose namesake is also given to one of the funniest episode titles “Who the F**k is Jack McKinney”), its jarring format changes, switching between Betacam, 16mm, 8mm, and 35mm. While I do understand the nostalgia of shooting on these formats, particularly Betacam and 8mm, it doesn’t further the story, only shows off how big of a budget they had that allowed them to shoot in all of these formats. This was very frustrating at the beginning of the series, but by around Episode 4 (“Who the F**k is Jack McKinney”), I began to get used to these insane formatting differences. Despite my eventual compliance with this, it was still a distraction from the overall show, and the formatting is not the only distraction. 

From the beginning, we are introduced to a playboy/caricature/possibly real Jerry Bess narrating himself as he moves throughout the infamous Playboy mansion. While this look into Buss’ mindset is, in the moment, funny, it outstayed its welcome by the end of the first episode, and he isn’t the only one to do it, Magic does it as well, but not nearly as clever and mildly interesting as Buss did. Again, a distraction to keep us from remembering we are watching a group of extremely shallow people try and exploit these players to make them the most money, “Winning Time” only shows this once, and in the most obvious way. When Magic arrives in Los Angeles he goes to a party and is told it is a “white” party, and given that he is a black man we are led to assume it is meant in a racist way, but soon we see it means that you have to wear the color white, but the undertones don’t stop there, almost all of the patrons of the party are white, with the only other black people there being members of the Lakers team itself. It’s continuing McKay’s recent trend of “subtlety like a sledgehammer” and now he is spreading that plague to other writers on this crew. However, even with all of these issues, the show is fun, it basks in the glory of winning, but also keeping them human by showing their personal lives, particularly Kareem Abdul-Jabar, and bringing great performances out of the entire ensemble, but in the end, the focus is Buss, what is in his head, how he works, but also showing his weaknesses. His relationship with his mother, Jessie, and how her eventual death sends him spiraling. Buss is a child underneath all of that hair product, and he acts like it. “Winning Time” is Buss’ world; the Lakers are just lucky enough to be in it.

“Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty” Trailer

“Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty” is streaming on HBO Max.

You can connect with Alexander on his social media profiles: Instagram, Letterboxd, and Twitter. Or see more of his work on his website.

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