Winning Time’s third episode, “The Best Is Yet To Come“, shows just how precarious the Lakers’ franchise was at this time starting from the opening moments where Jerry Buss (John C. Reilly) completely loses his cool at Jerry West (Jason Clarke) for quitting two weeks before the season. The wheeling and dealing playboy has been thrown to side as West tries to salvage the interaction by saying that he wasn’t cut out for coaching and wishes he could still play for the Lakers, but he’s too old. Director Damian Marcano shoots the scene in a closed office space that becomes a recurring motif in this episode with Magic Johnson (Quincy Isaiah) spending a lot of time in the contained space of his new apartment in L.A. or former Lakers player/wannabe color commentator Pat Riley (Adrien Brody) reliving his glory days in his garage until he ends up raging out and chainsawing the whole place after his more successful wife Chris (Gillian Jacobs) says she wants to turn into her new therapist’s office. And, of course, there’s the body in the car trunk at the end of the episode. All is this to say is that Jim Hecht, Max Borenstein, and Rodney Barnes script a downer of an hour of Winning Time showing that the Lakers, and by extension Buss, Johnson, and Riley, have growing pains to go through before they can be great.
Three episodes in, and Winning Time‘s ensemble has really start to balloon. However, Hecht, Borenstein, and Barnes keep this basically cast of thousands manageable by orienting each character to either Magic Johnson and Pat Riley’s personal arc or the Lakers coaching search. (There is some D-plot kind of stuff with the team’s finances lingering like background radiation.) So, Jerry Tarkanian (Rory Cochrane) and his wise guy fixer Vic Weiss (Danny Burstein) figure in the story as Jerry Buss’ top pick for new Lakers coach. Tarkanian’s disinterest is pretty evident as he loves being respected in Las Vegas as the head coach of UNLV despite being under the scrutiny of the NCAA. Also, Johnson joins Norm Nixon (DeVaughn Nixon) for the premiere of The Fish Who Saved Pittsburgh and gets a taste of being a celebrity and what it’s really like to be an NBA player, and it’s kind of empty.
On the outside, Winning Time might be a glamorous show with 1970s/1980s fashions, California sunshine, bright lights, and naked women, but it continues to actually be about successful men (Emphasis on men.) and their existential crises. Cinematographer Todd Banhazl and editor Hank Corwin let a lot of scenes trail off and switch to a grainy (Think home movie, not New Hollywood film) composition to linger in unspoken emotion like Magic leaving his family to be driven to L.A., or Pat Riley spending aimless, unsatisfactory days at the beach. This extends to the writing as well with Jim Hecht, Max Borenstein, and Rodney Barnes giving Pat Riley (In job begging mode) one hell of monologue to Jerry West about how he never realized that his basketball career would end. (Spoiler alert: It’s 2022, and it still hasn’t.) Marcano does a slow pan to West’s dented MVP trophy and a plaque commemorating him as the official logo of the NBA while Riley tells West that he wish he had at least accomplished something in his career.
The look on Jason Clarke’s face basically says, “See the last episode”, and he’s the same kind of empty as Riley. By the end of the episode, Jerry West is looking as dejected as he was at the beginning and isn’t into having sex with his wife Karen (Lola Kirke), who wants him to become a father. He doesn’t, and it takes him the entire episode to clean out his office. Along the way, he is furious at Buss’ decision to hire Jerry Tarkanian and ends up finding what he thinks is a diamond in the rough in Jack McKinney (Tracy Letts). Letts plays McKinney as the most forgettable middle aged white dude, but the film clips of his Portland Trailblazers team and how he basically comes up with the idea of Showtime gets seeded in quietly while Buss is off jetting to Vegas to woo Tarkanian. West’s passion as he breaks down the film of McKinney’s Portland teams is in contrast with his interactions with his wife and honestly everyone else. Both he and Riley only light up because of the game of basketball. That’s all they know.
As mentioned earlier, John C. Reilly shows the angry side of Jerry Buss, and we also get to see more of his desperate side like an awkwardly hilarious sequence showing how he does his combover or when he ditches lunch with Magic Johnson to fly to Las Vegas and give Tarkanian all his money. The scenes with Jerry Tarkanian and especially his fixer Vic Weiss are straight out of a 1990s mob film with dim lighting, a Rat Pack soundtrack, and lots of quick cuts to show that Buss is out of his depth as he and his business partner Frank Mariani have to hand over their whole wad of cash to even get to have dinner with Tarkanian. Thanks to $750,000 and two cars, Tarkanian does end up taking the Lakers offer, but the conclusion of this episode puts that on hold continuing the one step forward, two steps back of Jerry Buss trying to turn the Lakers into a contender. Tracy Letts nails “Tark the Shark’s” larger than life personality including his paranoia, and how he comes across as a baron of a small fiefdom instead of an emperor. But, NCAA rules aside, he has things running smoothly at UNLV compared to the utter financial and basketball shitshow that is the Lakers. (Which is why they make an interesting TV subject.)
Also, don’t think I’ve forgotten about Magic Johnson. Quincy Isaiah does a good job showing what is charismatic for Johnson in East Lansing comes across as starstruck in Los Angeles through the quick wit of Norm Nixon. However, Nixon ends up being overshadowed by Bill Cosby at his film premiere, and the photographers ask him and his teammates if there are any Los Angeles Rams on the red carpet because the NFL far eclipsed the NBA in popularity in 1979. And in an even darker sequence (And probably why the real Magic Johnson is silent about the show so far.), Johnson falls for the over the top advances of a local pimp and ends up hanging out and having sex with lots of women at his after hours club. This sequence shows Johnson’s naivete as he falls for the pimp’s offer even after more experienced teammate Jamaal Wilkes tells him that the pimp has nothing lose, but Magic Johnson has everything to lose as his career is just starting. Damien Marcano and Corwin also utilize hard cuts from the after hours club to Johnson on the phone with his family to show how empty his time in L.A. has been so far, and that people want to use him and not be his actual friend with the exception of Nixon, who is still going after his starting position.
Even though he’s at the beginning of his basketball journey compared to Jerry West and Pat Riley, Johnson shares a throughline of disappointment with them. At the end of the day, (Although West and Riley have wives.) they’re alone with their thoughts and wondering whether it was worth it to spend so much time practicing and getting better. Marcano explores an undercurrent of nostalgia in his shots of these men from Pat Riley doing commentary over his old University of Kentucky highlights to Magic Johnson putting on his Michigan State hat when he leaves for Los Angeles. Nostalgia is a comfortable place, but as a way overcast Gillian Jacobs as Chris Riley says, “There’s a reason we bury the dead.”.
By weaving together the stories of Magic Johnson, Pat Riley, and Jerry West’s existential crises with Jerry Buss’ frantic attempt to get a Lakers head coach, Damien Marcano, Hecht, Borenstein, and Barnes craft an episode of Winning Time that has both style and substance and finds the flawed humanity in these basketball greats. Also, Adrien Brody’s sad boy slacker take on Riley is memorable and mesmerizing. Unfortunately, the female characters of “The Best is Yet to Come” only exist to advance the arcs of the male characters with even the well-drawn Claire Rothman (Gaby Hoffman) confined to smoking and sneering.
Overall Verdict: 8.4