March 6, 2022

“Winning Time” Shows us the Rise of the Lakers Dynasty Through Adam McKay’s Eyes (Review)

I’ve never been much of a sports person, so the world of basketball is almost completely foreign to me. I can explain some of the basic rules, and I could name a few players. It just so happens that most of them have roles in HBO’s Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty.

Image courtesy of HBO

Taking place in the 1980s, Winning Time is an unfiltered dramatization of the highs and lows of what I am told is an absolutely legendary basketball lineup. Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Norm Nixon and Larry Bird (some of the only players I could name off the top of my head) are all a part of this story, with the first episode heavily featuring Magic’s decision to go pro and his heavy negotiation to join the Lakers.

You’d be forgiven if you can’t keep all of these characters straight — in fact, Winning Time’s supersized cast is only rivaled by Game of Thrones. Everyone vies for screen time, and sometimes the people we spend time with aren’t the most interesting — but everyone gets their time to shine. Our lead is Jerry Buss (played by John C. Reilly), the man who bought the Lakers in 1979 through a combination of wit and fraud, and while Jerry is fascinating enough on his own, the series delegates much of its story among the forty-one other starring cast, among them Jason Clarke, Gaby Hoffmann, Rob Morgan, Adrien Brody, Sally Field, Jason Segel, Tracy Letts and Gillian Jacobs. If I were to name everyone, it would take up half of my review — but everyone delivers excellent, HBO-quality performances

It’s worth mentioning that Winning Time is executive produced (and directed) by Adam McKay — the king of big, A-list casts! — and the series definitely feels like one of his post-Big Short projects. It’s extremely stylized, features characters breaking the fourth wall out of nowhere, and explicates complicated basketball and real estate concepts for people like me. As evidenced by my undying love for Don’t Look Up and his earlier comedies, I am a big Adam McKay fan, and to see his talents put to use in a ten-episode series is nothing short of a dream come true. I’m not saying this series wouldn’t be watchable without the constant McKayisms, but it would be very different.

Image courtesy of HBO

There isn’t necessarily a major scandal (at least in the beginning) that Jerry is dealing with, but everyone has a storyline, and so the series never rests. It’s witty and charming and stylized, plus everything else you would expect from a team-up between Adam McKay and HBO. John C. Reilly is magnetic and steals the show (as a lead should), and while the large roster of characters gets complex at times, there’s never a dull moment. I’m not saying Winning Time makes me care deeply about basketball — but it certainly makes the politics behind it absolutely fascinating.

New episodes of Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty air Sundays at 9pm on HBO.

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