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HBO's drama takes some risky shots
Few experiences in life are more universal than sports. Perhaps that's why the road to victory — often through defeat — has been a frequent subject of pop culture. There was a time in the 1980s and '90s when movies about underdogs and ragtag teams in baseball, karate, hockey, soccer, football, and even figure skating dominated the landscape. The early 2000s offered up a handful of gems, like Remember the Titans and Bend It Like Beckham, that pushed the genre forward and altered our idea of what a sports film could be. But the era of the sports movie is largely gone now, replaced by costumed superheroes and other big-budget films with the ability to withstand the pressures of the industry. However, that doesn't mean the familiar thrills of sports are missing from pop culture. It's just that if you're looking for them, you're better off turning to television.
In many ways, TV is the better medium for the job anyway. Its long-term approach to storytelling means it's better equipped to chronicle and interrogate the visceral highs and lows of a team or athlete, whether it's over a single season or across years. The episodic structure creates space to investigate the personal lives, individual triumphs, and devastating setbacks of players, coaches, managers, and others connected to a particular sport, and it's made for some captivating art over the years. From the small-town community at the heart of Friday Night Lights and the bloody fights of Kingdom to the brotherhood of One Tree Hill and a disgraced announcer on Brockmire, we've been blessed with unique takes on the wide world of sports for the last 20 years. And with more recent additions like Ted Lasso, Dare Me, The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers, All American, and Heels, we've been able to explore the inner workings and team dynamics of soccer, cheerleading, hockey, football, and wrestling, all in satisfying fashion. Now you can add basketball to the mix (again) with the debut of HBO's Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty.
The new HBO series, which debuts Sunday, March 6, is adapted by Max Borenstein and Jim Hecht from a book by Jeff Pearlman. It chronicles the Los Angeles Lakers' Showtime era, a period in the 1980s when the Lakers dominated the NBA and were known for fast breaks and the unstoppable one-two punch of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Earvin "Magic" Johnson. Owner Jerry Buss, who purchased the team in 1979, had turned the game into a full-on entertainment experience with the addition of a nightclub to the Forum, the arena where the team played, and the now famous Laker Girls. The 10-episode first season adopts a similarly stylish approach to the story, with a pilot directed by Adam McKay at his Adam McKayest, which is to say excessive. Later episodes thankfully tone down the fourth-wall-breaking narration but keep some of the visual flair, making great use of stock footage and fun title cards while mimicking the graininess of film and streaky VHS tapes of the era (you'll either love it or hate it, there is no in between).
The action picks up in 1979, when Buss (an enthusiastic John C. Reilly), using a combination of cash and real estate investments, purchases the flailing team. His first act is to draft Magic Johnson (Quincy Isaiah), a point guard out of Michigan State, even though the team already has a point guard and former player and current head coach Jerry West (Jason Clarke) thinks he's too tall. But Magic, a confident-to-the-point-of-cocky but easygoing young man from Lansing, Michigan, is eager to prove himself to his teammates, to the league, and to the members of the media fixated on fellow rookie Larry Bird (Sean Patrick Small).
Buss' relentless desire for flash (and sex) creates constant headaches for Claire Rothman (Gaby Hoffmann), the general manager of the Forum and one of the few women in the show, but his dream does eventually begin to take shape and pay off, proving that he's not a total joke or buffoon. However, issues behind the scenes quickly put a damper on things: The perpetually unhappy and volatile West resigns just weeks before camp begins, and Buss' choice for his replacement — UNLV's Jerry Tarkanian (Rory Cochrane) — turns the job down. As the beginning of the season gets closer and closer, Portland's nerdy assistant coach John McKinney (Tracy Letts) finally signs on alongside a meek assistant in Paul Westhead (Jason Segel).
This early "getting the team together" phase is unavoidable given the story the writers want to tell, but it drags in points and feels like an extended prologue. Viewers have to bide their time until the much more interesting and meaty show arrives in Episode 4 with the beginning of training camp. Once that happens, Winning Time becomes a different beast entirely. We get to meet more of the team and witness the locker room dynamic. We get to see them in action on the court as they learn and perfect McKinney's up-tempo offense. And, eventually, we get to see the beginnings of Pat Riley's (Adrien Brody) legendary coaching career take shape in what is one of the show's best subplots thanks to a stellar performance from a heavily mustachioed Brody and the character's bromance with Westhead in the wake of a near-fatal accident that leaves McKinney out of commission (a fun nod to Riley's eventual slicked back look is particularly fun, too).
Much like how no one man can single-handedly win an NBA championship, the show is much better when it remembers it's about a team and operates like an ensemble drama rather than a biopic about Magic Johnson. An episode in the middle of the season allows us to spend time with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Solomon Hughes), who until that point had loomed over the series but never fully engaged with the story as episodes were told from other points of view. Through flashbacks, we see Kareem's conversion to Islam while in the present the writers explore his faith, identity, and desire to explore a world outside of basketball. Later on, Spencer Haywood (Wood Harris) struggles with drug addiction amid worries of being traded.
At times, the fact that the show is dealing with real people and events is a hindrance because it limits where the story can go and what choices characters can make, which makes it more difficult to mine emotion the way shows based on fictional characters and teams might. But there's so much to like that sports fans will no doubt take an immediate shine to Winning Time. It's the non-sports fans HBO should be worried about, because there's likely little crossover appeal.
One of the biggest barriers to the success of Friday Night Lights all those years ago was a lack of interest from viewers who weren't interested in football. It wasn't until years later when the show hit streaming that it found a larger audience who realized the series really wasn't just about football. That probably won't happen here, because this really is a show about basketball. This is the story of one of the greatest dynasties in sports history. No matter how much time the writers dedicate to Magic's life outside of the game or to Jerry's relationship with his dying mother (a fabulous Sally Field), the fact remains that the reason to watch Winning Time is to bear witness to the various pieces of the Showtime Lakers coming together to change the fate of a struggling franchise and a league on the edge of ruin.
It's difficult to imagine viewers who have no knowledge or interest in the era, of the game of basketball, or of the Lakers, being drawn in by a feud between Magic and Bird or Los Angeles and Boston, by the drama of a come-from-behind buzzer-beater against the Celtics, by the complicated team dynamics, or by the behind-the-scenes drama. But to those unified by a love of the game, Winning Time will tap into the familiar emotions that only the thrills of victory and agony of defeat can bring.
Premieres: Sunday, March 6 at 9/8c on HBO, HBO Max
Who's in it: John C. Reilly, Quincy Isaiah, Jason Clarke, Solomon Hughes, Tracy Letts, Jason Segel, Adrien Brody, Gaby Hoffman
Who's behind it: Max Borenstein, Jim Hecht, Adam McKay
For fans of: Sports (but not the Celtics)
How many episodes we watched: 8 (out of 10 total in Season 1)