I love basketball, it’s the best sport in the world. It’s a bunch of high scoring, fast-paced, athletic action that’s rarely boring. A lot of what I love about basketball was ushered in by the legendary Lakers in the 80s before it was absolutely perfected by Jordan and the Bulls in the 90s.
That’s why I was excited to watch Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty, a show supposedly all about how the LA Lakers went from being on the verge of bankruptcy to being one of the most recognisable sports teams in the world.
Unfortunately, despite all the lengthy speeches comparing basketball, not to a summer’s day, but to sex, Winning Time doesn’t really seem all that interested in basketball. The eight episodes I watched mostly revolved around observing an off-brand Donald Trump living the dreams of your grossest uncle (the one you don’t leave alone with your female friends).
Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty
The first episode starts interestingly enough – Magic Johnson is in hospital in 1991 getting his HIV diagnosis. From this scene, you might think that the show is about to deal with something real and get down to the details about the people who changed the greatest game. It’s well shot, low on details so if you don’t know anything about Magic Johnson’s (played by Quincy Isaiah) story you won’t know what’s happening (this is a running theme), but generally looks like it could be part of a TV show made by people who know what they’re doing and are interested in their subjects.
That hope is quickly dashed in the next scene, where we see Jerry Buss (played by John C. Reilly) in 1979 giving the kind of speech you’d expect to be written by some arsehole in a first-year creative writing course. The kind of guy who goes on to become a professor who only publishes novels about how all young female students want to have graphic sex with their professor.
The rest of the eight episodes I saw stayed in that 1979-1980 time period, and in case you didn’t know it was the late 70s, they have three “ye olde” filters that they use at random, which make the show look like utter garbage. Apparently, tripods and steady cams weren’t invented then either, because everything looks a bit shaky. I watched the first episode in 4K on a 75” TV and it was almost unwatchable. Watching later episodes on a laptop made the filters more palatable The filters create an interesting distancing effect like you’re seeing archival footage shot by amateurs.
Except, because it’s executive produced (and at times directed) by Adam McKay (known for Don’t Look Up), the characters will frequently break the fourth wall to talk directly to the audience. This is a technique generally used to make the audience feel a part of the action, so it doesn’t work with filters that distance you from it. Breaking the fourth wall is also best when used to let the audience in on a joke or give the audience knowledge the other characters might not have, but here it’s used to explain any possible subtext or destroy all nuance. Though, to be fair, the characters don’t always explain the subtext to the audience – sometimes on-screen text or title cards are used instead to treat the audience like fools.
You can get away with an incredibly distinctive style if your work is good. Winning Time doesn’t earn that. Though, to be fair, it must be hard to edit when you’re doing it with only one hand.
Now, you’ll notice that I haven’t really talked about basketball much for a while. The first three episodes don’t, either. These episodes are to set up that Dr Buss and Magic Johnson have a lot of sex. There’s also some stuff about how there’s a lot of racism in the sport, but every time the characters almost stumble into making a good point they get distracted by a little extra gratuitous nudity and anything real or interesting is abandoned.
There are some times when it feels like a group of people have decided to make a period drama, not because they’re interested in really exploring the subject matter, but because they feel it gives them licence to be sexist, racist and homophobic. This is one of those times.
This is not a show made for a broad audience. You have to really have patience for heightened, period-appropriate rampant sexism, racism and homophobia. Women are mostly just sexual objects with their boobs out ready to be used as pawns in negotiations, or they’re there to stop the men from having a good time. None have any agency, and most could have been replaced with realistic sex dolls and no one would have been able to tell the difference. The f-slur is dropped casually.
But if you can look past all of that, there’s almost a really interesting story about how most people’s favourite LA basketball team was built by a bunch of the most unpleasant, morally ambiguous arseholes in capitalism who had nothing but a dream, a boatload of cash and a patent disregard for anyone’s emotional well-being. Aside from Magic Johnson, it’s really hard to find anyone to root for early on.
After episode four, Winning Time starts to find some kind of rhythm and actual story. Not consistently, of course, but once the basketball begins the show at least has an anchor and the actors are able to shine a bit more. It’s also here that the show starts to rely even more on quick cuts and flashes alluding to things I’m sure die-hard fans of the Lakers in the 1980s will understand, but will just look like disjointed editing, lazy storyboarding and poor narrative construction to anyone else.
There are some genuinely great performances buried in the rubble of Winning Time. Quincy Isaiah is utterly brilliant as Magic Johnson, making the character his own. Solomon Hughes exudes such quiet, calm, rage as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Jason Segel, Sally Field, and Adrien Brody are as brilliant as you’d expect.
Unfortunately, John C Reilly is utterly wasted as Jerry Buss. He’s clearly doing his best with what he’s got, but Buss is just an empty shell for adolescent fantasies and is about three drafts away from being interesting.
I also can’t detail any of the good bits without spoiling major plot points, but there are some really good bits later if you can be bothered waiting for them. The parts that centre on Abdul-Jabbar are fascinating, as is the journey of Adrien Brody’s character Pat Riley.
The show offers us a window into the seedy world of sports and Hollywood in the 1980s, but the window is really dirty and distorted, and those trucks advertising the Spearmint Rhino strip club keep blocking the view.
I was shocked to discover while looking up the spelling of the actors’ names that Winning Time is supposed to be a comedy. There is not a trace of humour to be found. This is what happens when a bunch of dudes try to make a TV show based on a wet dream they had when they were 15, without any input from people who actually know how to structure a TV show.
You can make a titillating bro show about sports that doesn’t suck, and part of that involves showing us why and how you love basketball and why we should care about any of these people. It made me glad that I’m not a Lakers fan because this is one of those times where you don’t want to see how the sausage gets made.
As is so often the problem with prestige TV, this clearly expensive TV show lacks structure and would have benefited from rewrites, recuts, reshoots and perhaps being made by different people (but with the same actors, who deserve better). There are some great ideas here, and some potentially really interesting stories to be told, but I wouldn’t have wasted 8 hours of my life on this show if it hadn’t been for work and I can’t recommend it.
All eight episodes of Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty were provided to PowerUp ahead of release.