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Like the '80s Lakers, 'Winning Time' scores with an unconventional playbook

John C. Reilly is Lakers owner Jerry Buss and Quincy Isaiah is player Magic Johnson in the HBO series <em>Winning Time.</em>
Warrick Page
John C. Reilly is Lakers owner Jerry Buss and Quincy Isaiah is player Magic Johnson in the HBO series Winning Time.

On Sunday, HBO presents the premiere of a new 10-part drama series about the Los Angeles Lakers, the team that dominated basketball in the 1980s. The series, which Adam McKay executive produced and directed of the pilot of, is called Winning Time, and I do think this show is a winner — even though it showboats with its tone and approach, and goes out of its way to be out of the ordinary.

Think of the extraordinary appeal and success of ESPN's The Last Dance back in 2020. That series found as much drama off the court as on as it told of the rise of a later basketball dynasty — Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, who ruled the sport in the 1990s.

The Last Dance dived into the backstories of the individual players, arguments among the coaches and owners, and lots of side stories about racism, sex and sexist attitudes — not to mention the growing commercialization of sports endorsements. The series covered all that, dynamically – but as a documentary. Winning Time takes the based-on-fact dramatic approach, hiring actors to play the familiar roles, and taking dramatic license with certain events.

In fact, Winning Time takes a lot of license, in a lot of ways. Eight of the 10 episodes were provided for preview, and like a show-off athlete, they're consistently asking for — almost begging for — attention. Period music propels many scenes and almost every montage. Sex scenes tend to be more graphic than expected. Split-screens and other busy visual tricks are plentiful — and many of the characters break the fourth wall, addressing the audience directly, then slipping back into the scene.

It could all be too showy and distracting, but the performances pull you in, and keep everything afloat. That's especially true of this show's central star, John C. Reilly, who plays Jerry Buss, the ambitious new owner of the Lakers.

The coaching staff is portrayed by actors who, like Reilly, can play for comedy and for drama with equal effectiveness. Jason Clarke is explosively funny as the temperamental Jerry West. Adrien Brody is a different kind of funny — quiet and sad — as Lakers coach Pat Riley. And the actors portraying the well-known Lakers stars — especially Quincy Isaiah as Earvin "Magic" Johnson and Solomon Hughes as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — pull off their portrayals with exceptional flair, both off and on the court.

One of the nicer surprises regarding Winning Time is how, as the episodes roll out, other strong actors join in on the fun, including Michael Chiklis from The Shield, who cuts a fierce figure as Boston Celtics general manager and president Red Auerbach. Another nice surprise is how much attention Winning Time devotes to its women. From company employees to players' mothers, wives and girlfriends, they're all given their own chances to shine, and to have their say.

That's especially true of Sally Field, who, sporting a blonde wig and a long cigarette holder, is virtually unrecognizable as Jerry Buss' accountant and mother. When she shows up, both she and Reilly start the scene by talking to the audience before shifting into dialogue, to engage in some caustic mother-son byplay.

Because of the cast, the subject and McKay's approach to the story, I suspect that Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty will draw a large and enthusiastic crowd – just as the Lakers did after drafting Johnson in 1979. And just like those Lakers, HBO seems to be hungry for more. The network is already talking about the possibility of extending Winning Time for additional seasons. The Lakers won by approaching the game differently, and this new HBO series seems to be drawing from the same unconventional playbook.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.