They were a legit Hollywood “it” couple – two Saturday Night Live sweethearts who’d go on to produce Step Brothers, Talladega Nights and so many other ribald gems. And then out of nowhere came the bulletin that Adam McKay and Will Ferrell had called time on their creative partnership, the former unpacking the whole affair in a Vanity Fair interview in November. Even more unimaginable than McKay’s disclosure that the superstar SNL alum was no longer on speaking terms with his former SNL head writer was Ferrell turning on McKay after being denied right of first refusal for the lead in a new dramedy McKay was developing about the Showtime-era Los Angeles Lakers.
Instead, McKay went with Step Brothers co-lead John C Reilly – another Ferrell bestie and frequent Funny or Die and Gary Sanchez collaborator who was reportedly put in the unenviable position of having to break the news of the booking to Ferrell. As much as it smarts to see business drive a wedge between arguably the most productive comedy team of the past two decades, there’s no question that McKay had to make that choice to give Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty a shooter’s chance.
Where longtime Ferrell watchers might have had a hard time distancing this new role on court from his over-the-top portrayal of owner-coach-player Jackie Moon in the ABA send-up Semi-Pro, Reilly thoroughly embodies Jerry Buss, the late chemist turned real estate mogul who sparked the Lakers conversion from NBA also-ran to one of the world’s most prized sports franchises (with an estimated $5.5bn valuation). Reilly nails Buss’s libidinous charisma, pulls off his porn star coif, fits his swinger threads (which go a long way toward distancing Reilly from the ambitious porn star he played in Boogie Nights). Crucially, Reilly is better at keeping his audiences from cracking up when he fast-breaks from funny to serious. The problem with Winning Time isn’t the Buss part being outside of Reilly’s wheelhouse, it’s that he’s a hub with far too many spokes.
Based on a book by the best-selling sports biographer Jeff Pearlman, Winning Time has a cast that’s large enough to fill three shows – one on Buss (who liquidated the Chrysler Building and a slew of other holdings to meet the Lakers’ $67.5m package price), another on the rise of Magic Johnson (the hall of famer who triggered the Showtime attack and the current era of positionless basketball) and yet another on the NBA – a second-rate sports league until Johnson and his rivalry with Boston’s Larry Bird took it mainstream. Sally Field (who shines as mother Jessie Buss) and Gillian Jacobs (who elevates the role of wife to the famed Lakers coach Pat Riley) are two stars relegated to the bench and restricted to a handful of minutes. The whole series plays like a Kanye West production, as if the point is seeing how many great performers can be minimised for texture.
It’s as if McKay (and Winning Time’s lead writers Rodney Barnes and Max Borenstein by extension) didn’t pick up any story craft from working with Jesse Armstrong on Succession. That show knows how to marshal a large production: cram it in a tight space (a private jet, a kid’s room). Winning Time is all sprawl, dipping back and forth from LA when it isn’t exploring haunts like the Playboy Mansion – an even more haunting stop now in light of recent sexual abuse allegations made in a still-unfurling 10-part A&E docuseries. Really, most of the sex appeal feels cringe, the kind of stuff HBO once spattered across its shows to hook subscribers. (See Jason Clarke, as Lakers coach Jerry West, having sex with his future wife.) Sure, LA was all about free love back then. But that doesn’t mean Winning Time had to be so regressive.
Rather than let Clarke’s mercurial West or Rob Morgan’s tender Earvin Johnson Sr or Solomon Hughes’s spot-on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar stand on their own, Winning Time seizes focus by emptying every McKay trick in the book: deploying superimposed all-caps to hammer home the obvious (Larry Bird is WHITE), leaning heavily on expository writing (this is sports, not The Big Short) and, ugh, breaking the fourth wall. Sadly, it seems all Winning Time takes away from Succession are the sepia tones from the Roy family home videos – and that too spreads to excess.
It’s unlikely any of these flaws will be worth ignoring Winning Time. Casual viewers will gravitate to the star-studded company, hoops heads will snark at the winking prescience (Magic Johnson in the post? It’ll never work!), and the look back at glory days will comfort Lakers fans desperate for an escape from the meltdown of today’s over-the-hill Lakers. Quite besides, Winning Time seems little more than a big idea that’s better captured in a book than a limited series. Devoting multiple seasons to disparate themes, like The Wire, might have been too much to ask. But in all Winning Time is hardly anything to be broken up about.