When screenwriter Jim Hecht first approached author Jeff Perlman to adapt his book about the Showtime era to the Los Angeles Lakers, he offered an example of what the show could look like: Friday Night Lights. Aside from the differences in sport, setting, and age range, the comparison makes sense. Friday Night Lights is the gold standard for scripted sports television. any show about a team as dominant as the Lakers in the 1980s would naturally aim for the same success. However, in practice, the closest analogue of the basketball saga is a completely different series.
Note the recently changed structure: Ahead of yesterday’s premiere, the HBO creative team Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty, rebranded to avoid confusion with another premium cable channel, revealed that the previously limited series will almost certainly run for several seasons, the second already at work. Such twists and turns are unusual before the show even aired, let alone become a hit; the network clearly trusts the project. Once it’s clear that the 10-episode season only covers part of Pearlman’s book, the update feels more like a pre-emptive olive branch. Don’t worry, he tells anxious fans wondering why a show that starts with a 1991 retrospective seems set to stay in 1979. There’s a lot more to come!
At the current pace of Winning Time, reaching the end of the Showtime era could easily take five parts or more. With HBO already picking up a Pearlman sequel tracing the years of Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant to the 2000s, the show might not even stop there. For now, Winning Time remains a period piece, presented in sumptuous, exhaustive detail, dramatizing the stories of world famous personalities who are ambivalent about their loud images. (Both Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar have voiced serious reservations about Winning Time, while the NBA keeps a healthy distance.) With its ambitions now widened, Winning Time places itself in the second category.
The show, in short, is the American answer to The Crown, Peter Morgan’s encyclopedic journey through the 20th century English monarchy. After all, elite athletes are about as close to the royal family as you can get in this country. Their reigns are even called dynasties. And just as it took The Crown several seasons to get to the real heart of its story, Victory Time seems to be set in years rather than weeks. Whatever the flaws were in its first episodes, the show at least looks like it will have time to fix them.
The Crown enters its fifth season of a planned six with a whopping 21 Emmys on hand. This result was not guaranteed; To achieve this rarefied air, Winning Time is subject to the same set of risks as the Netflix series at the beginning. A common criticism of historical dramas is that they can be as addictive as a staged reading of a Wikipedia page. This may not seem like a problem for such big personalities or such violent cocaine habits as the NBA of the 1980s. However, Winning Time faces the same hurdles as any show that recreates real-life events over multiple episodes. When we already know the outcome of any given conflict, the resulting story is relieved of tension. In a world as dependent on unknown outcomes as sports, this potential inertia is an existential threat.
The larger the object, the greater the pressure to bring in something that wasn’t there in previous takes. For Winning Time, the competition is more literal than the high legacy of a team that has won five titles in a decade. Next month, Apple will release a four-episode Magic Johnson docu-series, Johnson’s answer to The Last Dance, and a show closely tied to the start of his storied career. Meanwhile, Lakers president Jeanie Bass, whose teenage self is the titular character of Win Time, partnered with Mindy Kaling and Netflix to executive produce a workplace comedy about the NBA front office. Unlike Winning Time, the untitled series will be purely fiction. But its closeness to the real team is both an advantage and a clear contrast to the HBO series.
Like the real Lakers from Showtime, who turned the Forum into a place filled with luxury and glamour, Winning Time addresses these potential problems with sensory overload. Although it was co-created by Hecht and Max Borenstein, screenwriter of Godzilla and Kong: Skull Island, Victory Time’s most obvious influence came from executive producer Adam McKay, who is directing the pilot. Ever since stepping down from studio comedy with The Big Short, McKay has specialized in projects that combine important themes with a gritty and irreverent approach. Amid income inequality (Legacy), war crimes (Power), and climate change (Don’t Look Up), McKay is now turning to the lower stakes of professional basketball.
Even if Victory Time may seem like a shift in gear compared to McKay’s recent work, it still has certain calling cards. Nearly every character, from boastful owner Jerry Bass (John C. Reilly) to Forum executive Claire Rothman (Gaby Hoffmann) to radiant newcomer Johnson (Quincy Isaiah), breaks the fourth wall, often to lecture the audience with a lengthy metaphor. (The first episode is titled “The Swan” because Bass marvels at how the serenity of the birds contrasts with their furious efforts to stay afloat.) as “the second worst Donald of the 80s”. The editing is clearly insane, as befits a show about a team that pioneered the fast-break style of play.
Such maximalism is transferred to the casting. We’ve seen a big influx of movie stars on TV for half a decade now, but it’s really amazing to see Oscar winner Adrien Brody in his sixth starring role (at best) in a recurring drama. As future head coach Pat Riley, Brody is largely on the sidelines; before his character comes to the fore, he must first pay his dues as a minor announcer. Brody isn’t the only big name on Winning Time’s absurdly deep bench. Sally Field plays Bass’ accountant and aging mother; Rob Morgan appears as Johnson’s father, Ervin Sr.; Tracey Letts disappears as Jack McKinney, the often overlooked coach who led Showtime’s style before his career was derailed by a tragic bike accident. The real Lakers on Showtime had celebrities camped at the court. Winning Time also showcases its star power.
McKay’s style may draw attention, but at the same time it’s an accident. The explanatory approach is fantastically effective when applied to shaky topics such as diagramming, which benefit from improved illustration. Less pleasant is when Abdul-Jabbar (Solomon Hughes) reveals his stats to Johnson on the eve of their first game together. (Otherwise, ex-Harlem Globetrotter Hughes is fine as a solemn, silent superstar.) To a hammer, everything looks like a nail. For McKay, every shot is an exercise in his signature move, whether or not the occasion calls for it.
Winning Time’s “more is more” mentality also detracts from its surprising restraint. Limiting itself to just the 1979-80 season, the show’s first 10 episodes make up barely a quarter of Pearlman’s book. Riley does not appear on screen until the third episode; the Showtime team does not play their first official game until episode 5; any championship fights against rival Boston Celtics are far in the future. Unlike other series that have too little inspiration, this choice still leaves the writers with a lot of material. With a new owner, a new face for the franchise, and—spoiler alert! — a league championship in the near future, the season was arguably the busiest season in Lakers history, offering plenty of angles to explore Time to Win.
In fact, the pilot points out that Winning Time may be too dependent on its source. Over the course of the hour, scene after scene is taken straight from the pages of Showtime: Johnson asks for a hamburger from outgoing owner Jack Kent Cooke, who served him sand dabs; Bass gets drunk and yells “I own it” to the empty stands of the Forum. At first glance, Winning Time seems to be heading straight for the Wikipedia trap, albeit for obvious reasons. When your characters are real, wealthy, and potentially litigious, it makes sense to stick to previously reported facts. It’s just not a particularly attractive television.
Future episodes will thankfully reveal the long game. Like The Crown or Mrs. America before it, Victory Time is starting to use our knowledge of what’s to come as a chance to focus on the people, not the plot. Bass, Riley, Jeanie, Abdul-Jabbar and coach-turned-grandmaster Jerry West (Jason Clarke) each get their own spotlight episodes that deviate from known areas like emotional life that require thought and therefore invention . Jeanie Bass is barely mentioned in Pearlman’s stories. “Victory Time” reveals the tensions at the heart of her relationship with her father, a serial womanizer who touts the Laker Girls as “women’s empowerment” though he wholeheartedly supports women like Rothman who helped turn the Forum into a lucrative place. . He is also dependent on Jeanie and his mother.
“He needs us when he’s sick,” Grandma Jeanie explains. “When things get better, he’ll look elsewhere.” As far as women in sports stories are concerned, Jeanie’s arc is much richer than the typical supportive wife, although there are plenty of them in Victory Time too. Gillian Jacobs, Lola Kirk and Julianne Nicholson (playing Chris Riley, Karen West and Claire McKinney) can do little but prove that Win Time has more to do with inspiring stories than sex and drugs.
Victory Time makes room for storylines like Jeanie’s by cutting back on real-life basketball. This is good news for sports agnostics like me, but less so for diehard fans. (Though parts of the story are still incomprehensible to outsiders; I wouldn’t have gotten the allusion to Jerry West’s complicated relationship with point guard Norm Nixon, played by his son DeVon, if I hadn’t read the book.) Victory Time’s sensational, improbable story ultimately unfolds in several different directions: between beginners and experienced players; between style and content; between replaying the main reel and creating your own moments. And think: this is just the beginning.
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