Who doesn’t love a good comeback story? Knowing that things ultimately turn out well for the underdogs isn’t usually a detractor because watching them go from nothing to whatever celebratory accomplishment they achieve is the real reason to tune in. HBO’s newest series, Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty, foretells its subjects’ fate in its title, but it’s much more than just a feel-good sports tale. Its mix of inventive storytelling and a serious injection of humor makes for a tremendously entertaining journey that should appeal equally to basketball fans and novices alike.
Winning Time sets its tone from its opening moments with Jerry Buss (John C. Reilly) as its narrator. Buss is a man who has made his money from a past in chemistry and real estate investments, and now he has his sights set on the Lakers, a team that hasn’t done well in a number of years and whose fortunes he is determined to change. Though he can’t quite make the payment he promises, which involves the Chrysler building, he forges ahead nonetheless through creative maneuvering, showing that spirit of perseverance and ingenuity that has gotten him to where he is thus far.
A key part of Buss’ plan for success comes with a name that even those with only a passing knowledge of anything to do with sports will recognize: Magic Johnson (Quincy Isaiah). The Michigan native is an option in the NBA draft, someone with an eager attitude but also aware of his worth, which puts him at odds with his city employee father (Rob Morgan) and those ready to low-ball with an offer that he is expected to readily accept. Buss sees something in Johnson and is set on convincing him that this is where he needs to be, even when he begins to doubt his own ability.
It’s easy to see the imprint of director and executive producer Adam McKay, an Oscar nominee this year for writing Don’t Look Up, on the pilot, with quick cuts and engaging introductions to new characters, with an enthusiasm for speaking directly to the audience to provide a little bit of extra information that wouldn’t otherwise be apparent. This show is a fast-paced piece of entertainment, one that seeks to introduce many colorful players not just on the court and track a remarkable turn of fortune that isn’t so much luck as it is faith in those whose abilities not everyone can see.
There is no shortage of talent in front of the camera to bring to life the adaptation of Jeff Pearlman’s book Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s. Reilly is an underused leading man, memorable earlier on in his career for singing Mr. Cellophane in his Oscar-nominated turn as an ignored husband in Chicago. As Buss, he’s able to reach a happy medium between his reserved dramatic roles in films like Cyrus and Terri and his looser, sillier takes in comedies like Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. He’s charming and immensely watchable as Buss, even if there’s not inherently all that much to like in the character.
Stars who appear in the first episode alone include Jason Clarke, Gaby Hoffman, Brett Cullen, and Molly Gordon, and there are plenty more whose arcs begin in successive episodes. The casting is top-rate, and the best evidence for that is in Isaiah, an actor with one previous credit, for a short film. He has a natural way about him, one that makes him a perfect fit to play a star in the making. His story – and this show – is about more than reliving great sports moments from history, gleaning involving comedy and decent drama from a saga that could easily have reserved only the attention of diehard basketball fanatics.
Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty premieres Sunday, March 6th at 9pm on HBO.