TV

HBO’s ‘Winning Time’ Is A Flashy And Delicious Origin Story Of The Showtime-Era Lakers

Hey, do you want to see John C. Reilly eat a cheeseburger and wear a shirt with collars so wide they could wrap around the globe? How about an intense one-on-one basketball game at a Hollywood party that begins with one of the contestants wearing a full-length fur coat? Adrien Brody with a mustache? Sally Field as John C. Reilly’s mother? One character very casually asking another character if they’ve ever received oral sex from someone who had champagne in their mouth? A bunch of people just obliterating the fourth wall with fun asides about the 1980s and/or basketball and/or cocaine?

Of course you do. Everybody does. This is the beauty of Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty, HBO’s new series about, well, the rise of the Lakers dynasty. It does all of that. Other stuff, too, which we’ll get to, but definitely all of that. The show is an absolute blast, right from the jump, especially if you, like me, care about basketball and prestige television a little more than a well-adjusted person would consider “a healthy amount.” It’s fun and a little salacious — you can see why basically every real person and organization depicted in it grits their teeth when it comes up — and it just does everything, so much, almost all of the time. As it should. This is a show set in Los Angeles in the 1980s based on a book and era both called “Showtime.” Anything less than too much would not be enough.

(A brief aside: The book — by Jeff Pearlman, a longtime sportswriter — and era are both called “Showtime,” which would have been a perfect title for the show in about four different ways, and there’s even a point early on where a band performs a song with “showtime” in the chorus, but the show is called Winning Time because it is on HBO and Showtime is quite literally the name of one of HBO’s biggest premium cable competitors. This is very funny to me.)

But let’s back up. Let’s take the basketball out of all of this, briefly. What we have here is an origin story, really, one that you’ve seen play out a bunch of times in movies and television shows, one that replaces characters like Batman or Iron Man with real-life figures like Magic Johnson and longtime Lakers owner Jerry Buss and, at least a little bit, Paula Abdul. You don’t even really need to like basketball to follow any of it, just the way you don’t need to like people murdering each other with swords to follow Gladiator. It helps, sure, but it’s not necessary. There’s a familiar structure to things here, a rise and fall and good guys and bad guys, some of whom are almost cartoonish in their villainy, some of which is deserved. It’s almost like Adam McKay — executive producer and occasional director of the series — knows what he’s doing a little bit.

Everyone seems to be having a great time, too, which helps. There are some performances in here, people. Quincy Isaiah plays Magic Johnson at the beginning of his career, out in Hollywood after growing up in Michigan, dealing with fame and temptation and a bubbling race issue within both the NBA and the country as the years flip from the 1970s to the 1980s and Larry Bird and the Celtics create a natural rival. Jason Clarke plays Laker legend (and literal NBA logo) Jerry West as the mercurial crank he allegedly is, throwing trophies and golf clubs and tantrums every few minutes. Gaby Hoffman plays Lakers executive Claire Rothman, a woman navigating a boys’ club, with a heaping scoop of understandable exhaustion.

There are more. You’ll see. I wasn’t joking about Adrien Brody with a mustache, as Lakers coach Pat Riley. But this is where we need to stop to discuss John C. Reilly as Dr. Jerry Buss. Look at this guy.

WINNING TIME
HBO

There are two things you need to know here. The first is that Jerry Buss — the show’s version, but also the real person — is a classic Los Angeles character, for better and worse, a genius and a swindler and a hedonist, a salesman and charisma bomb, a man who opens the series by telling you — like, you, dead into the camera — that the only things that make him believe in God are sex and basketball. The second thing is that John C. Reilly was born to play this role. It’s amazing. It’s his best performance since Walk Hard, which I do not say lightly. He saunters and charms and winks and appears to be having just a wonderful time straight through. Even if the rest of the series proves to be a little too self-indulgent for you (again, it’s a lot, mileage may vary, etc.), it’s almost impossible to not be in awe of everything he’s doing.

(A second aside: There is drama here. The role originally went to Michael Shannon, who pulled out due to discomfort with the utter lack of a fourth wall, reportedly. Will Ferrell, McKay’s longtime creative partner, allegedly wanted it, but McKay offered it to Reilly instead. It created an ugly scene, apparently. But, regardless of your take on any of that, it’s hard to argue with the results.)

HBO would very much prefer I not spoil some of the things that happen in the first few episodes, at least not the specifics, which is always tricky in a show based on real events, so let’s close with this and hope I don’t get yelled at too much. There is a scene, early on, before we get to the parties and the cocaine and the dancers, where Jerry Buss and Magic Johnson go grab a hamburger after things get weird at a fancy dinner. They’re just sitting on a car, chomping into their greasy burgers, with the aforementioned wide collars on, talking about the future. It’s kind of wild if you already know how things play out, with the championships and the rise of the entire NBA and Magic’s eventual earth-shaking HIV diagnosis. It’s just two dudes from completely different backgrounds dreaming a bit. It’s really pretty cool.

Again, to be clear, I suspect someone like me — a basketball sicko who writes about television for a living — was always going to like this. It’s like Narcos crossed with Space Jam, which could not possibly be more up my alley and I promise I mean as a compliment. But I think it could play for you, too, even if you’re not me. It’s fun and flashy and scandalous and a little delicious and anyone who is even loosely familiar with the story will get to do the “Leonardo DiCaprio pointing at the television screen” meme at least once an episode. That’s really all you can ask for out of a television show sometimes.

The collars and fur coats do help, though.

Winning Time premieres on HBO at 9 pm on March 6

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