When a big-name director receives top billing as the executive producer, it’s usually because the release is trying to ride the tailcoats of their prestige. But Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty, HBO’s enjoyably offbeat comedy-drama about the 1980s LA Lakers team, bears the unmistakable influence of Adam McKay.
The director behind The Big Short, Vice and Do Not Look Up helms the first episode himself and ensures the show follows his stylized MO. There are captions which flash on screen with pithy character summaries – one letch is described as being “the second worst Donald of the ’80s” – cut scenes, rapid-fire sight gags and a whole lot of actors talking straight to camera. The fourth wall isn’t just broken. It’s bulldozed.
We start with a man who greets us with a game on how he’s about to buy a basketball franchise. He is Jerry Buss (John C Reilly), a chemist-turned-property mogul who took over the Lakers in 1979 and turned them into serial winners. A jaunty, open-shirted smooth operator, you can picture him cavorting in nightclubs with Ron Burgundy, the mustachioed newsreader played by Will Ferrell in McKay’s 2004 hit comedy Anchorman.
In fact, Ferrell was so indignant that his longtime friend and collaborator overlooked him for the part of Buss that the two aren’t on speaking terms (according to interviews with McKay). But that casting choice is vindicated by Reilly’s terrific performance. His asides to the viewers are warm and natural enough for us to forgive the gimmick, and he brings an avuncular affability to a character otherwise dripping in sleaze – a Cheshire cat chasing Playboy bunnies.
Buss may be charming, but the first player he acquires as the Lakers’ new owner is Magic. We meet Earvin Johnson (known by the sobriquet “Magic” and played here by Quincy Isaiah) as a rookie, albeit one with an ego to match his towering frame. He soon discovers that his newfound fame and fortune aren’t enough to enchant his religious mother or his hometown girlfriend.
We rarely see a basketball get thrown in the first couple of episodes. And while Winning Time will understandably appeal more readily to fans of the sport, the show is really about the game behind the game – the competition for power and pride that men play every day. It does not take knowing a three pointer from a driving maneuver to find that story compelling, especially when told in this punchy, pacy manner.
On Sky Atlantic from Monday at 9pm and on HBO in the US
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