Following the success of 2020’s ESPN docu-series The Last Dance following the Chicago Bulls dynasty of the 1990s, HBO presents their own 10-episode take on a different but still iconic era of basketball: the ‘Showtime’ Lakers of the 1980s. Winning Time is a biopic-style dramedy series helmed by Don’t Look Up and The Big Short director Adam McKay.
It opens following eccentric real estate mogul Dr. Jerry Buss (John C. Reily) taking a risk by deciding to acquire the local lovable losing NBA team, the Los Angeles Lakers. Once the deal goes through, Buss and disgruntled head coach Jerry West (Jason Clark) are given the first overall pick in the 1979 NBA draft. Their top prospect of choice: college star Earvin “Magic” Johnson (Quincy Isaiah). Once the roster is assembled, Buss hires Jack McKinney (Tracy Letts) and his assistant Paul Westhead (Jason Segal) to turn the newly-assembled group of men into winners. But when tragedy strikes leaving McKinney unable to coach, Westhead and former Lakers commentator Pat Riley (Adrian Brody) are left to pick up the pieces and battle odds to coach their new team to a championship.
McKay’s imprint is clearly left on this show, especially in the first episodes. Title cards, montages, narrations and the breaking of the fourth wall litter the first few episodes. The show needs to give a lot of background information on topics like the NBA, the Lakers franchise and 1970s Los Angeles to name a few. McKay’s storytelling tactics create a fluent way to deliver exposition while still engaging the audience throughout.
The production of Winning Time is very impressive in just about every aspect. The acting is phenomenal from Reilly diverting from his typical comedic roles to newcomer Isaiah shining in his debut acting role. The show’s writers are tasked with finding a way to highlight many different dynamics and plot lines within each episode’s sub-one-hour run time, and they continuously excel at this.
Winning Time is entertaining on and off the court, however, the basketball scenes are by far the most enjoyable. It’s clear the show is made with a lot of love and attention to detail from a staff that grew up in awe of these basketball legends. The passing pizzazz, flashy alley-oops, and defining fast-break plays that earned the “Showtime” Lakers their moniker are brilliantly encapsulated in these scenes that any basketball fan will surely appreciate.
The series has been extremely controversial, drawing the most heat from the very real-life counterparts it’s characters portray. Jerry West is demanding a retraction over his depiction as a hot-headed alcoholic lifetime loser. Magic Johnson has released his own documentary series similar to The Last Dance presumably in part to deflect the biopic’s reception and recount things on his own terms.
After a satisfying first season, it’s exciting to think of the potential longevity Winning Time could have. Apart from the opening scene in episode one previewing Magic’s HIV diagnosis in the 1990s, the entirety of the show’s events are leading up to or during the 1979-1980 NBA season. The Lakers dynasty lasted deep through the 1980s and included many battles with Larry Bird, Red Auerbach (Sean Patrick Small and Michael Chiklis) and the Boston Celtics. HBO has already renewed the show for a second season and Winning Time is set to serve as great television for a long time.