HBO’s Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty: Series Premiere Review
*This Review Contains Full Spoilers*
After delivering a satirical comedy with Don’t Look Up, director Adam McKay returns to putting his own comedic, stylistic spin on true stories with a series for HBO, titled Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty, delving into a wild era for an iconic basketball team that changed the game.
Pretty much immediately, McKay’s signature style of storytelling many remember from The Big Short returns with characters talking directly to the camera and the comedic dialogue snapping with it to create this engaging storytelling. At first, it’s very welcoming to see John C. Reilly’s Jerry Buss narrate viewers through his purchasing the Lakers and attempting to change the face of the franchise by drafting up and coming superstar Earvin “Magic” Johnson (Quincy Isaiah). However, it eventually becomes a little too much and the deliberate winks and nods become annoying with how in your face they are. There’s no doubt that the performances definitely make these fourth-wall breaking moments insanely charming, but they get old fast and pale in comparison to better stylistic choices made throughout.
The aesthetic of the added film grain and moments meant to emulate “Super 8” footage excellently immerses viewers into the 80s and makes this series feel like a real-life account. Now, its worth noting that it isn’t, but it’s definitely got the vibes of 30 for 30 documentaries with a lot of added entertainment value that comes through in some blink and you’ll miss it jokes. Some of the added titles for big introductions are pretty funny, especially the one given to Stormin’ Norman Nixon (DeVaughn Nixon), and there’s this palpable energy that’s easy to connect to. More importantly, there are already some strong themes that come out through the style and central story of Johnson joining the NBA.
For the most part, the premiere simply acts as an origin tale for Buss’ antics, his lengthy process for acquiring ownership of the Lakers, and Johnson’s journey into joining the NBA. There are some fun nods to other players, the history of the league up until this point in time, and the sparking rivalry between Johnson and fellow rookie Larry Bird (Sean Patrick Small), but there are also these small pieces dealing with race within the sport that don’t go unnoticed. From the sports announcer sequence introducing both Bird and Johnson with distinctive language to Johnson getting less money than Bird for his signing deal despite him leading his team to an NCAA championship over Bird, this premiere feels like the calm before the storm in sparking conversation around black discrimination in sports.
Throughout the episode, you can feel Johnson being looked down upon by not only future teammates because of how he could steal the spotlight from them, but also team owners and rich white folk who view him as a tool. Both the sequences of Johnson sitting with the current Lakers owner before Jerry and Johnson squaring off with Nixon at a party are illuminating in the ways they make you really think about how Johnson and even Nixon are treated. Sure, they might be decked out in expensive clothes and treated to fancy meals, but they almost feel like shiny objects of amusement for the mostly white crowds around them. Even while Jerry does legitimately like and respect Johnson for his skills and character, there are parts of him that make you question if he is all that different from his fellow wealthy owners. The pieces are definitely there for Winning Time to delve into race discrimination and the black experience in sports and it could make for an incredibly relevant story with how discrimination is being more discussed in sports, especially in the NFL and Brian Flores’ recent lawsuit citing discrimination.
Winning Time’s premiere also presents some killer performances with Reilly and Isaiah already displaying some award-worthy charm. Reilly brings a great mix of his beloved comedy style that makes this reunion with McKay incredibly special as well as some strong dramatic chops that he’s not often recognized for when he should be. Isaiah is already looking like the breakout star of Winning Time as he brings an instantly connective performance that brings the charming magic of Magic Johnson to life. He’s easily the heart of this series and his underdog story shows some emotional trappings that are tough to resist. It’s also worth noting that Gabby Hoffman’s Claire Rothman is showing some great promise to grow stronger as she gains more control under Jerry’s ownership and Jason Clarke’s Jerry West is definitely going to deliver more interesting story perspectives and hilarious tantrums in the near future.
HBO has something special on its hands with Winning Time and even though not all of McKay’s stylistic storytelling works, the strong performances from Reilly and Isaiah as well as some strong thematic story material come together beautifully to create a can’t miss sports story.