HBO’s latest high-budget blockbuster drama is a culmination of entertainment. Focused on the dizzying, wild, absurd sequence of events that led to the Los Angeles Lakers dynasty we know so well today, Winning Time contains everything you’d want in a hit series. It is stories like these that seem to ostensibly justify the astronomical amounts of money pouring into Hollywood, if only for a moment. And no, I’m not talking about a family-friendly sports hit. In fact, this is neither family-friendly nor a sports show (so don’t expect some spectacular in-game basketball footage); it’s about what transpired off the court. And no amount of hype can even begin to prepare you for the ludicrous—perhaps even unbelievable—excursion that you will embark upon over the course of ten spectacular, well-crafted episodes.
Set primarily throughout the 1979-1980 NBA season, Winning Time begins with a stunning opening scene that actually takes place ahead of the main story: all the way up to 1991. We begin with the unmistakable figure of Magic Johnson—cool, confident, and beaming with the impeccable smile that defined his life all the way up to this crucial moment—in a Los Angeles hospital, only for the warmth in his face to melt away as he walks through the hallways on his way out. You can feel the tension lurking, the murmurs rapidly pulsating, and the emotions rising as rumors of Magic’s HIV diagnosis spread. The music used here is genius, heightening the mood in all of the right ways, and Quincy Isaiah’s portrayal of Magic is mesmerizing.
After this tone-setting opening scene delivers its masterclass, we transition to a 1970s-infused closeup of John C. Reilly (who plays Jerry Buss, the questionable and eccentric semi-conman who would somehow pull off a legendary renaissance of a failing sports franchise) in a bed orating a love letter to basketball alongside the apathetic hooker he just slept with. It’s honestly a hilarious shot, if not repulsive at the same time—and a clear indication of the idiosyncratic style of Adam McKay, who directed this bold pilot episode. So then, the show continues as we follow lead protagonist Jerry Buss as he prepares to buy the Lakers in the summer of 1979, albeit through shady business tactics. With each ensuing scene, the momentum builds as themes of vanity, racism, and 1970s L.A. life whirl around (which are further compounded by the gradual introduction of changes Buss oversaw—on and off the court—to the Lakers that would transform the sports world).
I credit rising composer Nicholas Britell for providing a synthesizer-heavy ambient score that heightens the emotions of the scenes in which it is deployed; this is like what he did with his immaculate score for Moonlight, except this time it evokes more of a Brian Eno aesthetic than an orchestral one. Anyway, the show’s momentum continues for roughly the first five episodes and then begins to drop off. The plot continues to expand in impactful, interesting ways too—yet you soon get the feeling that the script takes on too many character arcs at once. Of course, Winning Time never ceases to entertain, but it isn’t life-changing cinema. And that’s a shame because I believed early on that this had a chance to assume such excellence. Regardless, for a show that sticks to the facts as much as it reasonably could, Winning Time is a meritorious ambassador for this amazing story of a franchise that won 10 titles under Buss, led by some of the greatest players ever.
Even if the pieces don’t combine seamlessly, each contains merit. The all-star cast—featuring not only a prime John C. Reilly, Adrien Brody, and Jason Segel but also a fresh selection of young actors, like the aforementioned Quincy Isaiah—renders a salivating rotation of talent. The technical side impresses. And indeed, this script contains it all: from showbiz to glory to rampant racism to LSD to shady business to raging alcoholism to class warfare to the mafia to murder. I’m not sure if this show quite lived up to the lofty standards it set early on, nor does the pacing of the story feel right at certain points, but it’s still pretty excellent. Even if you don’t vibe with the drama, the comedy alone is formidable, with clever lines and hilarious exchanges and witty scenes. And even if that’s not enough, this is a solid 1970s period piece anyway. As such, I hope that you leave with a formidable impression. We haven’t seen a high-profile opening season quite like this in a little while! So, expect HBO’s Winning Time to go down as one of the premier debuts of the year.