TV Review: Winning Time S1E2 “Is That All There Is?”
Jerry West’s memoir is titled My Charmed, Tormented Life, and from the outside, it doesn’t make sense that a man who is literally the logo of the NBA, one of its greatest players, and also found success as an executive discovering two of the greatest players of my life time (Kobe Bryant, Stephen Curry) would describe his life that way. But basketball was an escape for him from a tough life in rural West Virginia until it wasn’t. The second episode, “Is That All There Is?“, of Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty delves into West’s (Jason Clarke) love and loathing for the game of basketball, and how it controlled everything in his life, including his mental health and his relationship with his wife Karen (Lola Kirke). Scenes with West bookend the Jonah Hill-directed episode, but writers Rodney Barnes and Max Borenstein continue to dig into Magic Johnson’s (Quincy Isaiah) relationship with his family and on-and-off again girlfriend Cookie Kelly (Tamera Tomakili) as well as the business side of the Lakers with Jerry Buss (John C. Reilly) facing off against Boston Celtics general manager Red Auerbach (Michael Chiklis) and trying to succeed at this business side of things.
The pre-credits sequence of “Is That All There Is” is basically a short film of Jerry West’s life as he bounces the basketball to drown out the sounds of his father abusing his mother as well as the grief over his brother’s death in the Korean War. Hill and editor Hank Corwin dissolve from the snows of West Virginia to confetti in Los Angeles when West won his only championship as a player in 1972. Until Buss tells him that he can play Johnson at power forward, this is the only time he smiles in the episode. The raucous environment of the Forum leads to Jerry West drinking alone at a bar that’s hosting a wake for a guy he doesn’t know, and he ends up having a one night stand with the attendees with confetti still in his air from the championship celebration. (Yes, Jerry West fucks in this episode.)
Basically, like the lyrics of the song and the episode of the title, West is unhappy with his life despite his great successes. He doesn’t like coaching the Lakers as evidenced by his antagonistic encounters with Norm Nixon (DeVaughn Nixon) in flashbacks, and general manager Bill Sharman (Brett Cullen) has a good point when he says that Buss giving him free reign to sign players will also hinder him from making excuses why the Lakers keep losing. In contrast with Jerry Buss and Magic Johnson, he doesn’t seem to be having a good time, has no effect on laconic star player Kareem-Abdul-Jabbar (An imposing Solomon Hughes) even after passionately monologuing about how he’ll get a power forward to help him out in the post so maybe it’s time for him to get off this train.
I love the parallels that Barnes and Borenstein draw between Jerry West and Red Auerbach throughout the episode. Auerbach isn’t in the episode a lot, but Chiklis steals every scene with a puff of smoke beginning with a freeze frame, black and white introduction with future NBA commissioner David Stern calling him the pope. Buss and Auerbach are on two planes of reality with the Celtics GM not falling for the Lakers new owner’s offers of a night out and beautiful women even if they do end up sharing a brief dinner. Red Auerbach brings out a darker, less playful side of Jerry Buss with John C. Reilly taking the sunglasses off and saying that he will eat Auerbach’s heart on the Forum floor. It definitely feels like a kid putting on his father’s clothes, especially with all the behind the scenes financial shenanigans like Buss’ mom/accountant Jessie (Sally Field) saying that the Lakers are a money pit or his business associate Frank Mariani stealing the past ten years of records so no nonsense Claire Rothman (Gaby Hoffmann) can put together a budget for next year. With talks of big concerts at the Forum or the Lakers being one piece away from a championship, there’s a slight bit of hope in the air, but they could also go bankrupt like Rothman’s last job in Philadelphia.
The love triangle between Magic Johnson, Cookie Kelly, and Brian, a devout church goer and shoe store manager seems contrived while setting up Johnson’s reputation as a womanizer and showing that he’s not a nice guy as he utterly humiliates Brian on a Lansing playground. Isaiah continues to be a believable Johnson on and off the court as he dazzles with his passing and moves and charms everyone at the fish fry. Except for his mother, Christine (LisaGay Hamilton), who is not amused by his gift of a hot tub even though Johnson knows she’s wanted it for years by her reactions to the commercial during her soap operas. She smiles and talks about the gift in an animated way when she’s with her friends, but is all business around her son. Her husband Earvin Sr. (Rob Morgan) finds a middle ground when he basically tells her that Magic is grown up and has to find his own way in L.A., and that his free spirit came from her, who used to play point guard and dance before she joined the Seventh Day Adventist Church. By spending an entire episode showing Magic Johnson’s life and relationships in his hometown, Rodney Barnes and Max Borenstein ground him as a character and show that there is an entire town (Ok, maybe not Brian.) rooting for him even as Jerry West plots to minimize role from what Jerry Buss promised.
Jonah Hill cuts down on the sugar rush fourth wall breaking in “Is That All There Is?” and uses more natural storytelling techniques to show the current state of the NBA, the Lakers, and this episode’s key players. Jerry West cowering in a dark room in his underwear or sitting alone at a bar tells more about his mental state than talking to the camera or motormouth voiceovers. This episode also sets up Red Auerbach and the Boston Celtics as the key antagonists in the series with the racial implications of them having a white star player in Larry Bird showing up during the owners meeting. But the real conflict in Winning Time is internal with Jerry West butting heads with Jerry Buss, Bill Sharman, and as implied from his interactions with Nixon and Abdul-Jabbar, the players too so he decides to leave as coach right before the season. Him undercutting Buss’ big speech with a glance and a resignation letter creates a sense of uncertainty for future episodes, and boy, am I looking forward to Adrien Brody’s Pat Riley in upcoming weeks. All in all, Winning Time continues to strike a good balance between individual character arcs and the drama of running an NBA franchise in an era when golf, tennis, and bowling were more popular sports.