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Winning Time S1E3: “The Good Life” — I’m Here to Make a Deal

Photograph by Warrick Page/HBO

The following contains spoilers for Winning Time S1E3, “The Good Life” (directed by Damian Marcano and written by Max Borenstein & Rodney Barnes & Jim Hecht)


Whoo, I know that at the end of the last episode I was hoping that Buss would convince West to return as coach, but I was dead wrong. The opening seconds of Winning Time’s third episode, “The Good Life,” is Buss unloading a downright Biblical rage to West’s decision to resign in front of the entire organization. It’s funny to see Buss taking on the scorchingly vulgar persona that West usually owns, while the latter is completely emasculated, literally falling to his knees in his anguish at his acknowledgement that he’s a bad coach: the players hate that they aren’t him, and he hates that he can’t be them. 

I know it can often be an “easy button” of sorts to mine dramatic effect from two emotional characters yelling at each other, but Reilly and Clarke, two of my favorite actors, really nail it here in surprising ways. Winning Time has a multitude of strengths, but one if its greatest is the chemistry between its actors. Whether it’s Buss and West, or Magic and Norm, or pretty much any other pairing in the show, this is absolutely electric. Whether it’s teeth-clenching exchanges or boiling emotion, the actors convey the passion of their characters with incredible volatility. 

Magic’s triumphant page turn to the next chapter of his life, leaving the family home for the Lakers dynasty, is punctuated by his mother somberly telling him to not forget where he came from. Their bond can be strained, but I hope for the best for both of them that their bond remains intact in the coming years. Magic is also getting thrown head first into the glitz and glamor of being a star, whether that be a movie premiere with Nixon or a sex-fueled night at pimp Zastro’s house. This tryst is intercut with a later conversation between Magic and his family, in which he promises he is staying out of trouble and looking for a church to attend. This shows that Magic is as corruptible as anyone.

Zastro and Magic stand outside a movie theater.
Photograph by Warrick Page/HBO

Surprisingly (or perhaps unsurprisingly, given that we’re dealing with Adrien Brody), the most compelling chapter of this episode is with Patrick James Riley, a former ring-bearing player vying for a broadcaster position. He’s washed out, he’s got a relationship with his therapist wife that is loving yet stretched tighter than a guitar string, and his garage of shrines to his former glory is overrun with tenacious vines and roots. Not unlike West, Riley is consumed by nostalgia for how much he used to be loved, completely miserable without being able to latch onto basketball. It’s hard to hate on the guy, as he’s got probably the most earnest and innocent love of the sport in the series so far, and his barrier for entry is that his voice sounds too effeminate (to use the less-prejucidial term). 

Buss, meanwhile, has his hopes on Jerry Tarkanian for the new coach. Tarkanian has his fair share of controversies, and his very expensive asking price at a very expensive dinner is hijacked by an alcohol delivery from a nearby table of mobsters. This adds a very interesting wrinkle to the seedy underbelly that the normally confident Buss seems to have wandered into, as the conclusion of the episode finds the businessman and friend brokering the agreement between Buss and Tarkanian, Vic Weiss, shot dead and stuffed into the trunk of his own car…with the business card belonging to Jerry Buss tucked behind his ear. How far is the reach of Los Vegas mafia, and how will this affect the Lakers? 

Jerry Tarkanian stands angrily on the basketball court.
Photograph by Warrick Page/HBO

Moreover, while Buss possesses a superhuman level of confidence, it’s starting to get concerning how and when this is just raw hubris. Even Jerry’s own accountant mother is sounding the alarm, starting with the $3 million surprise debt Jerry has inherited as the stadium was built on credit. Despite privately sweating bullets early in the episode, Buss barely blinks when talking to the camera or to another characters, and utilizes at least two or three metaphors to discuss his ideas. When his daughter Jeanie questions whether Jerry can afford the 750k annual salary and two Rolls Royce vehicles offered for the coaching job, Jerry brushes it off, citing how a plane flies by falling, despite how it may look, but you certainly can’t tell anyone you’re actually falling. I honestly can’t tell if or how bad things will get as a result of Jerry’s carelessness, but that’s the fun.

This seems like a good time to restate that I am watching Winning Time as a total outsider to sports in general. I was a high school drama student, card-carrying college research insomniac, and modern streamer and connoisseur of movies and television. Almost literally the most experience I have with basketball is when one of them nearly broke my nose on a rebound in elementary school. Yet, I find Winning Time not only incredibly compelling, but fostering a contact excitement in how the people both on and off the court have such a passion for the sport. HBO’s got another slam dunk—no pun intended. 

Written by Hawk Ripjaw

Hawk Ripjaw has been sharing his opinion on film and TV since his early teens, when the local public library gave away prizes for submissions to their newsletter. Since then, he's been writing for local newspapers, international video game sites, booze-themed movie websites, and anywhere else he can throw around some media passion. He watched the Mike Myers Cat in the Hat movie over 50 times in two years, for science.

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