Winning Time is the latest HBO Show from Adam McKay and writers Max Borenstein and Rodney Barnes. Telling the story of the rise of the Lakers Dynasty, this latest McKay joint is less compelling than the documentary The Last Dance and more annoying self-aware than The Big Short. McKay lends his traditional style to this HBO episodic, and the result is mixed.
The first episode, titled Swan, is directed by McKay with the teleplay by Borenstein. Opening with a flash-forward of sorts with the Lakers Dynasty already present in 1991, the story starts with Magic Johnson at one of the lower points in his personal life. Portrayed by Quincy Isaiah, the basketball icon displays a vulnerability that’s admirable from Isaiah. His performance makes for one of the highlights of the first episode.
Flashing back to the 1980s, the first episode recounts Jerry Buss’ quest to acquire the Lakers. The first episode makes for a basic structural introduction to our cast of characters. However, there is one large glaring problem with the first episode. That being, the constant breaking of the fourth wall. McKay’s need to constantly have the actors speak directly to the camera quickly became tiresome. Moreover, taking the characters out of an engaging moment to look at the audience and explain the stakes just make for bad storytelling.
John C. Reilly as Jerry Buss is tolerable enough. If anything, Reilly ascends as the character when he isn’t forced by McKay to explain math directly to the camera in every other scene. It’s through the perspective of Buss that we’re introduced to the Lakers staff at the time of his acquisition of the team. Another highlight from Winning Time‘s first episode would be Jason Clarke as Jerry West. One of the only memorable supporting characters introduced, Clarke portrays West with a hilarious and tragic fury. A former player turned coach who can’t seem to measure up to himself, it will be interesting to see West develops in the coming season.
Reilly’s Buss is portrayed with extravagance and his story is paralleled with Magic’s, who begins to doubt himself and his place in the franchise as the episode progresses. However, as much as Winning Time tries to humanize Buss through the characters around him, it’s to no avail. Moreover, he still comes off flat until the episode’s end. McKay’s style doesn’t translate to television well.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, portrayed by Solomon Hughes, is sparsely used this time around. However, what little scenes he’s a part of are hilarious. The 80’s aesthetic and camera work of the show is also charming. The wide shots and overall cinematography of Winning Time help to make the show feel distinct. Overall, the story of “Swan” is one of Buss trying to get Magic Johnson to believe in the Lakers and himself. All while also trying not to go belly up financially from gambling it all on the Lakers. The story is compelling enough to get viewers interested in the next episode.
Overall, Winning Time makes its debut with a mixed bag. On one hand, the style, production, and performances are all credible enough most of the time. However, McKay’s direction and incessant need to break the fourth wall gets tiring right away. For an hour-long premiere, that’s not a good thing. If Winning Time can fix its direction and use this style to its advantage, the show may still have a chance to live up to its title. – Ernesto Valenzuela
Rating – 6.5/10
Winning Time Premieres New Episodes Every Sunday on HBO & HBOMax.