The following contains spoilers for Winning Time S1E1, “The Swan” (directed by Adam McKay, teleplay by Max Borenstein, story by Max Borenstein and Jim Hecht)
Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty explodes onto HBO with all of the energy the title would suggest. From the explosive opening titles to the slick, fast-paced editing, this is a show that is determined to tell the story of the Lakers without skimping on the sheer glory of it all. And oh boy, is it a good time. Based on the book Showtime by Jeff Pearlman, the story of the Lakers in this era is presented in a way that anyone, not necessarily basketball lovers, can get on board.
This pilot episode is absolutely electric from a stylistic standpoint. McKay is very much in The Big Short mode here: cast members are introduced with a freeze-frame and a cheeky subtitle, and characters will frequently break the fourth wall and address us, sometimes in the middle of a conversation. The scripting of the conversations is snappy and engaging, and the asides give a dynamic sense of being right there when these conversations took place.
No one does this as often as Dr. Jerry Buss, the slick, hedonistic businessman who we first meet the morning after what was undoubtedly a salacious night in the Playboy Mansion. Buss is waxing poetic about basketball: if there’s two things in the world that would make him believe in God, it’s sex and basketball. Unfortunately, the woman sharing his bed is more interested in sleeping than listening, so Buss turns his attention to us: he’s about to buy a basketball team.
John C. Reilly is just firing on all cylinders here, clearly having the time of his life as he energetically fills the shoes of the late Buss. Buss is gearing to introduce the world of the NBA to a younger, hipper generation, and he’s going to do it by transforming an ordinary sport into a glamorous event, like a huge musical performance that will capture the attention of everyone, not just the sports enthusiasts.
Of course, the other key player here (pun intended) is Magic Johnson himself. Played to perfection by Quincy Isaiah, Magic gets a lot of immediate development in just this pilot. He’s a suave, confident and borderline cocky young man, though the attention he’s received as a rookie player makes that not unsurprising. He’s unafraid to push for a higher salary prior to his draft, he barely blinks when accosted, and he knows he’s gunning for glory. He falters when, at a fancy party, he is soundly trounced by current Lakers superstar Norm Nixon in a scrimmage. He’s already been overwhelmed by the glitz and glamor of Los Angeles, the fancy meals and parties Buss has taken him to, and raw skill of going face-to-face with professional players. Isaiah sells this exceptionally well, and the tight shots on his face during some of his more emotional moments make screen Magic feel as alive as if we were watching the man himself.
Racial tensions are also factored into the tapestry: those excellent opening credits are a rapid-fire montage of archival footage enumerating African American culture, sports highlights, and racial tensions of the time, all of which played a part in how basketball transformed. The episode itself conveys these things in a couple of ways: a news report comparing Larry Bird and Johnson, the former gets the word WHITE juxtaposed multiple times over his footage, whereas the latter has BLACK stamped over his footage until it fills the screen. Later, soon-to-be-former Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke, in a moment of frustration, impulsively addresses Magic as “boy.” Finally, when brought to a glamorous party by Buss, Magic is informed at the front of house that the party is “whites only,” which Magic rightfully bristles at before hearing the clarification that the attire is to consist only of white clothing.
There seems to be a conscious decision to make a concept more palatable for the uninitiated: I, personally, have little knowledge of the Lakers and basketball in general, but Winning Time makes it an engaging topic. Not unlike Moneyball, this seems to be less about the sport and more about the business behind the scenes: the numbers, the deals, the money. There is sure to be plenty of basketball action, and what we see in the pilot looks fantastic, and indistinguishable from archival footage of the same events.
Sometimes, key money shots from the news are played twice—once from the original footage, and once more from a recreation, and sometimes vice versa. The whole look of this show is incredible: it has a grainy film look, like you’ve dug up an old VHS from the era, and the production design is pure nostalgia bait. The attention to detail is impeccable, and is a huge part of what makes Winning Time such an engrossing watch.
There’s plenty of other fun to be had here as well: Jason Clarke as the perpetually-furious Jerry West, Kareem Abdul-Jabar’s bit part in Airplane! being recreated here to reveal that he’s as big of an insecure prick as the joke in that movie made him out to be, and Buss playing the mother of all trump cards in how he outsmarts a conniving Cooke to accept his offer to purchase the Lakers. This show is a blast.
I am 100% on board. The cast is perfect, the vibe of the show capturing the combination of grit and glamour lands, and the way everything is put together makes a topic I wouldn’t think twice about something I can’t wait to see unfold. Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty is exhilarating, engaging, and electrifying.