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‘Winning Time’ Looks Like ‘Friday Night Lights’ and Acts Like ‘The Crown’

HBO’s new sports drama is a lavish period piece unafraid to tell its story with painstakingly gradual detail

HBO/Netflix/Ringer illustration

When screenwriter Jim Hecht first pitched author Jeff Pearlman on adapting his book about the Showtime era of the Los Angeles Lakers, he offered an example of what the show might look like: Friday Night Lights. Differences in sport, setting, and age range aside, the comparison makes perfect sense. Friday Night Lights is the gold standard for scripted sports TV; any show about a team as dominant as the Lakers in the 1980s would naturally aim for a similar success. In practice, though, the basketball saga’s closest analog is a different series entirely.

Consider the newly tweaked structure: Ahead of last night’s premiere, the creative team for HBO’s Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty—renamed to avoid brand confusion with that other premium cable channel—revealed that the previously limited series would almost certainly run for multiple seasons, with a second already in the works. Such pivots are unusual before a show has even aired, let alone become a smash hit; the network clearly has confidence in the project. Once it becomes clear the 10-episode season covers only a fraction of Pearlman’s book, though, the update reads more like a preemptive olive branch. Don’t worry, it says to anxious fans wondering why a show that opens with a flash-forward to 1991 seems intent on staying in 1979. There’s much more on the way!

At Winning Time’s current pace, reaching the end of the Showtime era could easily take five installments or more. Given that HBO has already optioned Pearlman’s follow-up tracing the Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant years well into the aughts, the show may not even stop there. For now, Winning Time remains a period piece rendered in lavish, exhaustive detail, dramatizing the stories of world-famous figures who have an ambivalent relationship with their high-profile portrayals. (Both Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar have expressed serious reservations about Winning Time, while the NBA is keeping a healthy distance.) In the sheer ambition of its now-expanded scope, Winning Time puts itself in a category of two.

The show is, in short, an American answer to The Crown, Peter Morgan’s encyclopedic tour of 20th-century English monarchy. After all, elite athletes are about as close to royalty as this country gets. Their reigns are even called dynasties. And just as The Crown took several seasons to reach the real heart of its story, Winning Time seems designed to play out over years, not just weeks. Whatever flaws its first episodes may have, the show at least looks like it’ll have time to work them out.

The Crown is now headed into its fifth season of a planned six with a whopping 21 Emmys in hand. This outcome wasn’t guaranteed; to reach such rarefied air, Winning Time runs a similar set of risks as the Netflix series did at the start. A common critique of historical dramas holds that they can be about as exciting as a staged reading of a Wikipedia page. That may not seem like an issue with personalities as big, or cocaine habits as raging, as the 1980s NBA. Still, Winning Time has to contend with the same obstacle as any show that recreates real-life events while stretching them out over several episodes. When we already know the outcome of any given conflict, the resulting story gets sapped of tension. In a world as dependent on unknown outcomes as sports, that potential inertia is an existential threat.

The bigger one’s subject, the greater the pressure to contribute something that previous takes haven’t. For Winning Time, the competition is more literal than the towering legacy of a team that won five titles in the span of a decade. Next month, Apple will roll out a four-part docuseries on Magic Johnson—Johnson’s answer to The Last Dance, but also a show that closely tracks the beginning of his storied career. Meanwhile, Lakers president Jeanie Buss, whose teen self is a major character in Winning Time, has partnered with Mindy Kaling and Netflix to executive-produce a workplace comedy about an NBA front office. Unlike Winning Time, the untitled series will be purely fiction. But its proximity to the actual team is both a selling point and a clear contrast with the HBO series.

Much like the real Showtime Lakers, who turned the Forum into a destination with an all-out barrage of glitz and glamour, Winning Time’s solution to these potential hurdles lies in sensory overload. Though cocreated by Hecht and Max Borenstein, the writer of Godzilla and Kong: Skull Island, the most obvious influence on Winning Time is executive producer Adam McKay, who directs the pilot. Since transitioning out of studio comedies with The Big Short, McKay has made a specialty of projects that pair capital-I Important Themes with a rude, irreverent approach. Amid income inequality (Succession), war crimes (Vice), and climate change (Don’t Look Up), McKay now turns to the slightly lower-stakes setting of professional basketball.

Even if Winning Time may seem like a gear shift from McKay’s recent oeuvre, it still retains certain calling cards. Nearly every character, from ostentatious owner Jerry Buss (John C. Reilly) to Forum executive Claire Rothman (Gaby Hoffmann) to beaming rookie Johnson (Quincy Isaiah) breaks the fourth wall, often to lecture the audience with a lengthy metaphor. (The first episode is called “The Swan,” because Buss admires how the birds’ serenity belies their furious effort to stay afloat.) Chyrons abound, whether to inform us Jeanie is lying when she says she’s smoked weed before or to introduce Donald Sterling as the “second worst ‘Donald’ of the ’80s.” The editing is positively frenetic, as befits a show about the team that pioneered the fast-break style of play.

Such maximalism carries over to the casting. We’re a half decade into the great influx of movie stars into TV, but it’s genuinely bewildering to see Oscar winner Adrien Brody as the sixth lead (at best) in a recurring drama. As future head coach Pat Riley, Brody largely sticks to the sidelines; before his character moves to the forefront, he first has to pay his dues as a second-string announcer. Brody isn’t the only big name in Winning Time’s absurdly deep bench. Sally Field plays Buss’s accountant and aging mother; Rob Morgan appears as Johnson’s father, Earvin Sr.; Tracy Letts disappears into the role of Jack McKinney, the oft-overlooked coach who masterminded the Showtime style before his career was derailed by a tragic bike accident. The real Showtime Lakers had celebrities camped out courtside. Winning Time, too, puts its star power on display.

The McKay style may be attention-getting, but it’s also hit-or-miss. The explainer approach is fantastically effective when applied to wonky topics like diagramming plays, which benefit from the enhanced illustration. It’s less welcome when Abdul-Jabbar (Solomon Hughes) recites his statistics to Johnson on the eve of their first game together. (Former Harlem Globetrotter Hughes is otherwise wonderful as the solemn, taciturn superstar.) To a hammer, everything looks like a nail. To McKay, every shot is an application for his signature techniques, whether or not the occasion calls for them.

Winning Time’s more-is-more mentality also distracts from its surprising restraint. By confining itself to just the 1979-80 season, the show’s first 10 episodes draw on barely a quarter of Pearlman’s book. Riley doesn’t show up on-screen until Episode 3; the Showtime squad doesn’t play their first official game until Episode 5; any championship fights against the rival Boston Celtics remain far in the future. Unlike other shows that stretch their inspiration far too thin, this choice still leaves the writers with plenty of material. With a new owner, a new face of the franchise, and—spoiler alert!—a league championship in the offing, the season was arguably the most eventful in Laker history, offering plenty of angles for Winning Time to explore.

In fact, the pilot indicates Winning Time may be a little too reliant on its source. The hour features scene after scene pulled straight from Showtime’s pages: Johnson requesting a hamburger from outgoing owner Jack Kent Cooke, who served him sand dabs; Buss getting drunk and screaming “I own this” to the Forum’s empty stands. At first, Winning Time seems headed straight for the Wikipedia trap, if for entirely understandable reasons. When your characters are real, rich, and potentially litigious, it makes sense to stick to the previously reported facts. It’s just not especially compelling TV.

Future episodes, thankfully, reveal the long game at hand. Like The Crown or Mrs. America before it, Winning Time starts to use our knowledge of what’s to come as a chance to focus on people over plot. Buss, Riley, Jeanie, Abdul-Jabbar, and coach turned GM Jerry West (Jason Clarke) each get their own spotlight episodes, which stray from knowns into areas, like one’s emotional life, that require speculation, and therefore invention. Jeanie Buss is barely a presence in Pearlman’s telling. Winning Time digs straight into the tension at the heart of her relationship with her father, a serial womanizer who touts the Laker Girls as “female empowerment” even as he sincerely empowers women like Rothman, who helped turn the Forum into a profitable venue. He also depends on Jeanie and his mother.

“He needs us when he’s down,” Jeanie’s grandmother explains. “When things are looking up, he’ll be looking somewhere else.” As women in sports stories go, Jeanie’s arc is far richer stuff than the typical supportive-wife stock character, though Winning Time also has plenty of those. Gillian Jacobs, Lola Kirke, and Julianne Nicholson (playing Chris Riley, Karen West, and Claire McKinney) have little to do besides prove Winning Time has more in common with cookie-cutter inspiration tales than all the sex and drugs would have us believe.

Winning Time makes room for subplots like Jeanie’s by cutting down on the actual basketball. That’s good news for sports agnostics like myself, though less so for die-hard fans. (Though parts of the story are still impenetrable to outsiders; I wouldn’t have understood an allusion to Jerry West’s fraught relationship with point guard Norm Nixon, played by his son DeVaughn, unless I’d read the book.) In taking on such a sensational, larger-than-life story, Winning Time ends up pulled in several different directions: between newcomers and old hands; between style and substance; between replaying the highlight reel and crafting moments of its own. And to think: It’s only just getting started.