This brash new show (Sky Atlantic) sets out its stall right away, announcing that it will be “a dramatisation of certain facts and events”, while making it clear that it is allowing plenty of wiggle room for interpretation. Those certain facts and events involve the rise and rise, in the 1980s, of the LA Lakers and its star players, who came to define not just basketball but an entire cultural epoch. It is big and showy, though its garish style is not yet matched by the substance it needs to balance out its exhibitionistic streak.
Even the most sport-averse viewers should be familiar with the superstar appeal of Earvin “Magic” Johnson, played here with ample charm by newcomer Quincy Isaiah. The first two episodes detail the NBA’s first ever taste of Johnson, and the purchase, in 1979, of the Lakers by the late Jerry Buss, who would go on to turn their fortunes around. Anyone expecting actual basketball may be left disappointed, as it’s very much a behind-the-scenes approach, detailing the gutsy financials and macho wheeling and dealing far more than the sport. It’s a workplace drama, though you might expect a bit more oomph from a workplace such as the LA Lakers.
The pace is a mystery. It opens with what is, presumably, Johnson’s HIV diagnosis in 1991, but has not returned to that point yet. Many of its scenes are loose. Winning Time is executive produced by Don’t Look Up and The Big Short director Adam McKay, who also directs the pilot episode. His visual tics are all over this, from the breaking of the fourth wall to the quickfire breakdowns of financial deals, to the crash zooms and collage-like use of archive footage. A metaphor about swans swimming is intercut with rapid footage of their webbed feet paddling. The rivalry between Johnson and Larry Bird is depicted with various adverbs flashing up on the screen, which give way to the words “black” and “white”, repeated again and again. It is not subtle.
I know plenty of people who love McKay’s style, though I find it self-conscious and often intrusive. The breaking of the fourth wall is so ubiquitous now that its use here inspired a recent Gawker article begging film-makers to stop it. The overtly stylised approach lends this a grandiose feel that should suit the subject matter. All of the big themes are here: life, death, love, sport, fame, and particularly money. It’s weird, then, that it feels sluggish. “Goddamn. Basketball. I mean, look at it,” says John C Reilly, having a ball as Buss, and I wondered whether looking at basketball might have helped usher it along.
Still, there is plenty to recommend. It is clearly ambitious, and if it is taking its time over the mechanics of the early stuff, then I can only imagine that there is more in the way of excitement in store for the team, when and if the team begins to move into focus. The performances are excellent, particularly Isaiah as 19-year-old Johnson, all height and charisma and potential, and Reilly, whose enthusiasm for the new world he finds himself in is infectious. If Johnson is the man with the golden touch, then Buss is the man with the golden tongue, and watching him talk his way into and out of tricky situations is deeply enjoyable. Gaby Hoffmann, too, stands out as Claire Rothman, the general manager of the team’s Forum home, and a lone powerful voice in the boys’ club.
In one early scene, Buss lounges on a circular waterbed, with a half-naked woman, the pair of them rustling in satin sheets. “If there’s two things in this world that makes me believe in God, it’s sex and basketball,” he says. Winning Time is a bit Boogie Nights, a bit Mad Men, filled with sexist, racist men. That’s of its time, and I don’t doubt that the reality was worse, but this doesn’t go much deeper than that. The few female characters drift in and out as ciphers of decency, rolling their eyes at the scallywags that are their bosses and boyfriends and fathers and ex-husbands.
It is a touch superficial, then, but it is a lot of fun. The whole thing is given a VHS/old film veneer, and all that chest hair and bushy moustaches look the part. For a drama about greatness, though, it just doesn’t quite scale the heights.