Showtime’s growing pains continue in Winning Time Season 1, Episode 4 “Who the F**k is Jack McKinney?”. Training camp is about to start after last week’s murder of Vic Weiss, Jerry Tarkanian has decided to not take the Lakers job with Weiss’ wife smacking Jerry Buss (John C. Reilly) at his funeral. So, per Jerry West’s (Jason Clarke) recommendation, Buss and the Lakers decide to go with Jack McKinney (Tracy Letts), who might have the stage presence of an accountant, but has ideas that would go on to revolutionize the game of basketball. But, for now, they’re just scrawlings on resort napkins and clipboards, or slides loaded by his assistant coach Paul Westhead (Jason Segel), a floppy-haired former English professor that is really a non-presence in this episode. Like he just mumbles and quotes Shakespeare and immediately fits in with this quite kooky set of characters
Along with the growing pains on the court, there is still the financial issues with team, and Buss’ accountant/mom Jessie Buss (Sally Field) finds a way out by saddling some of the liabilities with his ex-wife JoAnn Mueller (Kate Arrington). From an awkward opening scene where she and their children have lunch at the same Mexican restaurant as Buss and one of his girlfriends (And Jeanie Buss sees him fingering the woman at the table.) to walking in on him and another woman with the liability paper work, Arrington plays the part with scene-stealing contempt shattering the fantasy that Buss wants everyone to see about him. Writers Jim Hecht, Max Borenstein, and Rodney Barnes follow the thread of Jerry Buss’ true desires through the perspective of Jeanie Buss (Hadley Robinson), who gets real depth in this episode walking the line between an intern and boss’ daughter.
From being quiet and meek in the first couple episodes, she speaks up in a meeting and even builds a connection with two of her co-workers over a shared bong. This episode shows how much Jeanie cares about her dad and the Lakers and also how she’s unhappy that he would rather hang out with random women than spend time and communicate with her going all the way back to the opening flashback. However, she does have some real vision in regards to setting apart the Lakers from a college basketball experience, and Claire Rothman (Gaby Hoffmann) packages her ideas in something that will sell to Jerry Buss. But it’s all just theory for now. There are no Laker girls or Jack Nicholson and Dyan Cannon sitting courtside just yet.
This theme of theory versus practice definitely is the driving engine of Hecht, Borenstein, and Barnes’ training camp A-plot although there’s all kinds of squabbles and subplots going on from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Solomon Hughes) hazing Magic Johnson (Quincy Isaiah), Michael Cooper (Delante Desouza) battling to get a guaranteed contract, and Jerry West not wanting to walk away from the team. Director Damian Marcano excels at shooting the basketball action at its best (Johnson, Abdul-Jabbar, and Norm Nixon showing glimpses of real chemistry) and worst (Veteran Ron Boone getting hit by one of Magic Johnson’s no-look passes) while going the montage and voiceover narration route for McKinney’s ideas. With references to Buddhism that reminded me of a future Lakers coach, Tracy Letts nails Jack McKinney’s passion for basketball as well as the heartbreak and compromise he feels when West tells him that he needs to combine his system with some of his old sets. The practices and a verbal sniping show that doing things a new way is painful even as Magic Johnson and Nixon start to buy into system the system while Kareem Abdul-Jabbar simply doesn’t give a fuck. He doesn’t say a lot of words, but Hughes’ physical presence and taciturn looks show that he knows he’s the undisputed leader of the team and won’t be running suicides or “McKinney miles” with the rest of the Lakers.
I do have to applaud Marcano, Jim Hecht, Max Borenstein, and Rodney Barnes for showing viewers the building blocks of Showtime and fast break basketball with montages and film sessions showing how it sharply contrasts with the stagnant half court sets most NBA teams were running at the time. No wonder the league was struggling. There’s also a kind of cheeky animated sequence featuring Magic Johnson that connects his philosophy of basketball to McKinney’s with a focus on making his teammates and basically being good, giving, and game as the basketball court dissolves into Johnson giving oral sex. However, this whole being everyone’s friend is a little bit of facade as Cookie Kelly (Tamera Tomakili) reminds him that Magic Johnson basically stole her from one of his teammates. Their phone conversation doesn’t end well, and Isaiah shows a little bit of the darker, sadder side of Johnson, both on and off the court with Boone fighting him because he’s frustrated at his playing style and also that he has a guaranteed contract even though he hasn’t played a minute of professional basketball.
“Who the F**ck Is Jack McKinney” is set in a bikini-clad women-filled oasis in a harsh desert, and no one shot understands the facade that is Jerry Buss’ life and ownership of the Lakers than him mouthing “Fuck” under the pool when he realizes that the Lakers and Forum have no chance of turning a profit this year so he can pay off his creditors. Being together in an enclosed space (Even though McKinney closes practice to the ownership and front office) brings out temper and negative feelings with the Lakers continuing to have a long way to go both on and off the court. However, it’s not all downbeat as Hecht, Borenstein, and Barnes position Jack McKinney as one of the true, unsung heroes of the game even if the players hate him for now. Plus there’s strong characterization for Jeanie Buss as Winning Time leans into its greatest strength and weakness: it has a huge cast so it’s hard to get to know all the players, but most of them are fascinating and opportunities for strong, nuanced performances.
Overall Verdict: 8.1