Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty is a lot. Chronicling the rise of the most famous team and brand in basketball, it dramatizes the behind-the-scenes stories of the 1980s Lakers.
It's a sports movie, it's a family drama, it's a workplace comedy and drama. It has to mythologize gargantuan figures in sports like Magic Johnson, Pat Riley, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar making its known history engaging despite knowing the outcome.
The series tries to explore the Buss family, their patriarch, Dr. Jerry Buss, who was a lot of things, including a visionary when it comes to professional sports, his daughter, who wishes she was his son and two sons who will never measure up to their father (very Succession-y). Winning Time is good, but it often suffers from being too big, which is very noticeable early in its second season, but when the show focuses itself and becomes a straight-up sports movie, it’s incredible and delivers some truly great television.
The first season saw the formation of what would become the beginning of the Showtime Lakers dynasty, beginning with Dr. Jerry Buss (John C. Reilly) finessing his way into buying the team and then drafting Magic Johnson (Quincy Isaiah). After their coach was incapacitated, a young up-and-comer, Paul Westhead (Jason Segel), took over, and with the help of his buddy Pat Riley (Adrien Brody), they won the NBA title, and the future seemed bright.
Season 2 picks up right after with the team and organization dealing with success and how to maintain it. There is a clash between Westhead, who, after winning, is feeling himself and stamping his authority on the team, and Magic Johnson, the most important player on the team who is starting to question the direction of how things are going and his situation as a star player.
The series also sets up their hated rivals, the Boston Celtics, who have a star of their own in Larry Bird (Sean Patrick Small), setting the stage for an eventual clash down the line.
The power struggle and the organizational conflicts that lead to the team underperforming is the biggest story of the season, but it is surrounded by several other storylines, some that work and some that don't. Storylines like the Buss family drama, Jerry Buss reigniting an old romance, and his daughter Jeanie (Hadley Robinson) vying for his attention and trying to make her own way in the organization are interesting but often feel like fat around the real meat of the show.
Similarly, the continued use of Magic Johnson and his on-again-off-again relationship with Cookie (Tamera Tomakili) is filler where there doesn't need to be. Spoilers, but we know Cookie and Magic Johnson got married and are still married to this day despite all the drama that went on. Knowing the history is a bit of a hindrance to the pace and style of the show. The parts of the series that are not as kinetic or dramatically interesting can’t stand on their own as opposed to the stronger parts that make the show worth watching.
Having so much in the show also means we do not get to sit with any characters or get the quiet moments that endear them to us or show us a new dimension to them, which is something small but something that pays off in the long run.
The first four episodes set the stage for an eventual blow-up. in its fifth episode, which might be the series' overall best. Titled “The Hamburger Hamlet,” through the performances we get from Jason Segel, who is giving a career-best performance as Paul Westhead, Oscar Winner Adrien Brody, who is legitimately great as Pat Riley, and Quincy Isiah as Magic, who is truly embodying a legendary sports figure. The show focuses so tightly on the Westhead firing and the damaged relationship between player and coach, cutting away all the excess and becoming a thrilling sports movie with a real sense of tension and dramatic weight.
The filmmaking also focuses on reducing the amount of fourth-wall-breaking flair and really honing in on the stakes. The press conference announcing the firing of Westhead and the promotion of Riley was essentially performed verbatim from the actual real-life press conference. From the questions, the reporters are throwing at Buss and Jerry West (Jason Clarke) to the real-time scrambling from the Laker's front office. This should be difficult to pull off, but thse performers do it effortlessly. The fifth episode had the energy and juice that the show needed, and hopefully, it carries over to the remainder of the season as it inches toward its conclusion.
Winning Time is ambitious and is currently carrying the Sunday night HBO torch. People are watching, but there has been a major dip in viewership due to several factors, with one being the ongoing actors and writers strikes in Hollywood that have affected promotion for the series.
It also has the “who is this for” problem. It’s a period piece about an NBA team. It's not hard to imagine that people with no interest in sports or the Lakers are not particularly interested in the show, and people who are interested in the sports aspect are being turned off by knowing what happens. Still, the first season was a success and merited a second season. Despite its shortcomings, it's really incredible TV when it wants to be.
Winning Time is streaming on HBO.