‘Winning Time’ Review: HBO’s Busy Drama About the L.A. Lakers’ Golden Era Mostly Hits Bricks

Adam McKay’s hodgepodge of postmodern filmmaking deprives the audience of any sense of discovery

John C. Reilly, Quincy Isaiah in "Winning Time" (HBO)
John C. Reilly, Quincy Isaiah in "Winning Time" (HBO)

The Showtime Era of the Los Angeles Lakers, taking place in the 1980s under the eccentric tutelage of team owner Dr. Jerry Buss, was rife with texture, dynamics and kinetic substance underneath the pizzazz. The Lakers, led by superstars Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, increased their on-court tempo and leaned into their personalities. The Inglewood Forum echoed with the sounds of live bands and titillated with the sights of scantily clad dancers. And beyond this era’s immediately apparent influence on the game and the entertainment apparatus of basketball, the team also represented some incendiary intersections of race, class, status, sex and the American Dream.

“Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty,” HBO’s docudrama limited series based on the book “Showtime” by Jeff Pearlman (they couldn’t call it “Showtime,” given any confusion with its premium-cable rival), does not trust the inherently crunchy, compelling textures at play. Instead, it grabs you by the shoulders and screams obvious conclusions amplified by obnoxious filmmaking.

The tale of how Buss (John C. Reilly) bought his way into the NBA and upset any apple cart he could on the road to total victory (and five NBA championships) is presented with direct addresses to camera, lightning-quick editing, bursts of stock footage used to redundantly underline jokes, split-screens, and most garishly, a collage of various film stocks that range from grainy 16mm to purposefully busted 8mm to smeary Betacam. It’s a hodgepodge of postmodern filmmaking that learned the wrong lessons from directors like Martin Scorsese or Oliver Stone — depriving the audience of any sense of discovery by reducing ever subtext to literal onscreen text.

Executive producer and pilot director Adam McKay’s reliance on capital-T Technique disrupts without ever enlightening. At times when a scene would randomly cut to a canted Betacam close-up of Reilly, I was reminded of how Reilly used the technique to better effect in his four-season Adult Swim series “Check It Out! With Dr. Steve Brule.”

Among all this noise, there’s little room for the deep cast to find any humanity or gradation. Some effectively play directly into the noise, like Sally Field as Buss’ fiery accountant mother, Jessie Buss; less effective but just as noisy is Jason Clarke, giving Lakers GM Jerry West a screaming, tiring freneticism that rarely finds depth. Others are more “traditional prestige television performance” zone, like Gaby Hoffmann as the stern and savvy Forum GM Claire Rothman, Rob Morgan as Earvin Johnson Sr., Magic’s proud but concerned father, and Adrien Brody as Pat Riley, a player-turned-coach with one helluva redemption story. Sadly, Solomon Hughes tries a similar, correctively grounded approach in his portrayal of Abdul-Jabbar, but cranks too far and emerges as stiff and unbelievable.

Thankfully, the two co-leads hit the sweet spot. Reilly’s Buss is endlessly endearing, showing how this man could persuade, hobnob and spend lavishly without lapsing into inauthentic charades or ickiness. Reilly plays him as a guy you’d want to change the world with; in one key episode, where we gratefully settle on a long close-up of Reilly, we even manage to find the raw, aching hunger at the center of this restlessness. 

Quincy Isaiah delivers the most revelatory performance as Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Jr. — his wide-open approach, totally in control, invites us to consider just what makes this budding legend tick. Isaiah is adept at portraying Johnson’s earnest, endearing side, while also making him a figure of constant calculation, able to turn his charisma into a devastating weapon as needed. Heck, he even pulls off the camera asides and other stylistic difficulties that McKay’s production demands. It’s a star-making performance in the middle of an asteroid belt. 

But he’s saddled with choppy filmmaking and some one-note, loud, shallow writing (shepherded by series creators Max Borenstein and Jim Hecht), that robs the narrative of texture and substitutes shallow pop psychology for illuminating humanity. The Showtime Era of Lakers basketball was some of the most entertaining television you could watch. “Winning Time” is mostly hitting bricks.

“Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty” debuts on HBO March 6.