There are obviously a ton of creative liberties (and flourishes) at play in HBO's wildly entertaining new series "Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty", a funny, campy, stylized, and fun-to-watch telling of the escapades of one of the greatest dynasties in NBA history, the 1980's Los Angeles Lakers. Based on the book "Showtime" by the always-reliable Jeff Pearlman, executive producer and pilot director Adam McKay uses the prose as the show's main recipe and then adds his own salt, pepper, and spices to the mix (it gets the standard 'this is a dramatization' statement even if people apparently miss it). But that's, in part, what makes it so entertaining. "Was so-and-so really that much of an asshole/patsy?" "Did that name-check or meeting really happen?" "Did Magic really say that?" "Was Kareem that much of a dick?" are questions I don't care about when I'm watching---I'll find out when I read the book.
I'm watching to be entertained and "Winning Time" entertains the shit out of me. John C. Reilly, who has never been close to bad in anything, is hilarious as the Lakers hedonistic hornball owner Jerry Buss. Aussie Jason Clark is terrific as a bitter and surly Jerry West. But the pair of revelations thus far after five eps are, appropriately enough, the two guys playing Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Quincy Isaiah and Solomon Hughes, respectively.
Hughes deftly captures Johnson's magnetic charisma and 'aw shucks' eagerness-to-please while Hughes is incredible at conveying Kareem's aloofness, barely-contained anger, and pissy disposition (not to mention his voice). The two actors are given time to shine in Episode Five and that's exactly what they do. Prior to the first game of the 1979-80 season, the budding superstar and the aging icon are hardly on the same page. An excited Magic enters the locker room blaring a boom box while his grumpy center reads the newspaper, seemingly devoid of any enthusiasm for the upcoming season ("it's a game, we'll play").
Thanks to some (likely) headgames from head coach Jack McKinney (the always-excellent Tracy Letts), Magic tries to buddy up and bond with his new teammate but things don't go too smooth. Later, when the rookie calls out the captain for being a hump, a physical altercation ensues. As does Kareem's much-needed self-introspection to get his head back in the game. I'm looking forward to more scenes with these two as Magic, presumably, drags some semblance of a personality out the big man as the team starts rolling.
"Winning Time" scratches so many pop culture itches not just to be cute but because the 1980s Lakers were a prominent American pop culture institution of the time that birthed even more quintessentially American pop culture. Paula Abdul really was the brains behind the Laker Girls. I know many think of her as the posiibly-buzzed host (no judging) of "American Idol" but she was a superstar in the '80s thanks, in no small part, to MTV and her infectious videos. Also, she was hitting about 102 on the gun.
After some career dormancy, she became a starmaker on TV alongside a snobby Brit and known to a whole new generation or two. All because she got hired by the Lakers. (However, that Kobe Easter egg felt too forced and there's no record of whether or not 1-year-old Kobe was at Magic's first NBA game.)
What I like is how the show is in no real hurry and doesn't rush through the season. Alan Sepinwall Tweeted that events are still in the regular season at the end of the eighth of ten episodes so this show is all about the ride and not the destination (an almost annual trip to the Finals). It was also renewed for a second season and, one assumes, there will be more to follow.
The Lakers want nothing to do with the show and that's not a total surprise. “We have no comment as we are not supporting nor involved with this project," a Lakers rep told The Hollywood Reporter. McKay countered with, “We’re coming at this with good intentions, but these guys don’t know that. They’re used to a certain degree of media that’s always going after them, and if I could talk to them, I’d say, ‘No, no, don’t worry, we’re going to paint the whole picture,’ but I get it, they don’t know me or [showrunner] Max Borenstein, and it’s their right to really not like it.”
But that's the Lakers loss because they're missing a hell of a show.
A few more buds for your bowl...
*Magic doesn't get nearly enough play in the GOAT talk (not saying he's the GOAT---just that his name doesn't come up enough when discussing). He won five titles and just turned 32 before he had to walk away after averaging 19.4 points, 7 rebounds, and 12.5 goddamn assists a game in the '90-'91 season. If he wrapped his shit that fateful night and didn't miss four seasons, there's no doubt Johnson would've won at least one more title whether in LA or elsewhere. Probably a couple. And because rings are kings in GOAT talks, he'd get a lot more mentions. Simply, Magic Johnson was a bad motherfucker on the court. And as "Winning Time" shows, he couldn't keep his dick in his pants off of it. Doesn't make him a bad guy.
*Conversely, Kareem might be the most boring superstar in North American sports history. One of the best ever, no doubt. And like Jack Handey, he was a deep thoughts guy. But his lack of charisma and personality probably explains why an NBA team never hired him to coach. I read his autobiography "Giant Steps" way back in the day and it was legit the most boring book I ever choked down.
*I hate the Lakers with the heat of a million suns but goddamn it would I have loved to have torn it up in the Forum Club.
*Adrien Brody plays a pre-slicked-back Pat Riley, a retired player at a career crossroads getting bitched around by Lakers play-by-play guy Chick Hearn. I'm curious to see how he ends up with the head coaching gig not to mention if he has some payback for Chick.
*I almost shit myself when I saw Michael Chiklis on my TV playing Red Auerbach. Didn't see that coming.
*Sally Field has been crushing it for damn near 60 years and she continues to do so here as Jessie Buss (Jerry's mother).
*Gaby Hoffman is terrific as Claire Rothman, the GM and President of the Forum. She's been working pretty steadily for the last 33 years (since her debut in FIELD OF DREAMS).
*Man, I miss the fucking 1980s.
*I really hope they do about 10 seasons of this.