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TV Review: Winning Time S1E7 “Invisible Man”

The iconic Lakers/Celtics rivalry takes center stage in “Invisible Man” with a rematch between college enemies Magic Johnson (Quincy Isaiah) and Larry Bird (A hick-ish Sean Patrick Small) being the talk of the country and also serving as commentary on race in the United States. However, on an immediate level, “substitute” coach Paul Westhead (Jason Segel) has to win the game, or he loses both his job and his old boss Jack McKinney’s (Tracy Letts) to former Laker Elgin Baylor (Orlando Jones in a bad wig), who accidentally calls Pat Riley’s (Adrien Brody) hotel room instead of a scheming Jerry West (Jason Clarke), who is doing the opposite of retiring.

Director Payman Benz frames the episode like a game of Monopoly, which is Jerry Buss’ (John C. Reilly) favorite board game because it relies on both chance and strategy, and it connects well to the plot of the episode. If Michael Cooper’s layup at the end of the Lakers/Celtics bounced another way (And the editing shows how desperate it is.), Westhead would have lost his job, and who knows if the Lakers would have won a championship under Baylor. So, it’s safe to say that Westhead is under a lot of stress this episode especially as the losses pile up. He gets talked over in the locker room and hides behind Riley, who shows a real talent for coaching and motivation, complete with shots of him slicking back his hair that hint at the legend he would become. There’s a great scene where Riley gets into it with Westhead and soaks him with cold water basically showing him the harsh reality of what will happen if they don’t win a game on this road trip. They’ve been buddy buddy up to this point, but coaching (Especially against the Celtics.) brings out an angry side of Pat Riley and lets Adrien Brody cut loose a bit with his acting culminating with getting thrown out of the Boston game.

While the coaching situation of the Lakers continues to be unresolved, writers Max Borenstein and Rodney Barnes thread the needle and show how the Larry Bird/Magic Johnson (And by extension, Lakers/Celtics) rivalry connects to race and white privilege in the United States. In demeanor, Bird is the complete opposite of Johnson with his one word answers to the press, Bud Light, and spit cup while Magic Johnson is all smiles and gives the journalists something to work with for better or worse. However, despite this and Johnson outperforming Bird on the court in the 1979 national championship game, the media treats him like God’s gift to basketball. Bird makes him feel invisible, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Solomon Hughes) uses this feeling to have a serious conversation with Magic Johnson about race in the United States, and how since Johnson was bused to an all-white school in Lansing, he’s been trying to stand out with his smile, charisma, and basketball game. However, Abdul-Jabbar tells him that the media will continue to chase Bird even if Johnson dominates him tonight or has a better season overall.

Invisible Man

This conversation between Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Magic Johnson flows out of a very frank one that the Lakers captain had with Earvin Johnson Sr. (Rob Morgan) at the Christmas dinner that he and his wife host for the team after they’re upset by the last place Detroit Pistons. They start by making small talk about Abdul-Jabbar’s appetite, and how much Johnson Sr. respects Abdul-Jabbar and is glad that his son gets to play with one of the greatest centers of all time. However, the chat turns into Kareem Abdul-Jabbar asking Earvin Johnson Sr. why Johnson doesn’t seem to harbor any anger about race relations in the United States and, on a lighter note, if he’s always smiled all the time. Johnson Sr. says that he has been puzzled by this too, especially since he grew up in Mississippi when lynchings were common. Benz, Borenstein, and Barnes also use this scene to frame two men who genuinely care about Magic Johnson and don’t want him to be overwhelmed by folks who would take advantage of him with Abdul-Jabbar starting to take on a kind of surrogate father role for Johnson. This is in contrast with his agent Dr. Day (Steve Harris), who urges him to immediately take a deal with Buick focusing on the money that Magic Johnson would make while Earvin Johnson Sr. warns him that the cars are less dependable than they used to be according to his friends who work at their factory.

The complicated relationship between Magic Johnson and Cookie Kelly (Tamera Tomakili) continues in “Invisible Man” as she doesn’t use his tickets to the Lakers/Pistons game, but buys her own nosebleeds ticket. However, Isaiah and Tomakili demonstrate great chemistry with Johnson almost missing the team bus to Boston and calls her family hinting at an actual future for their relationship. But then Payman Benz does a quick cut to Kelly’s friend Rhonda getting dressed in the bathroom after their conversation. Yes, Johnson slept with the supposed love of his life’s best friend, and the rumors about him picking out women in the crowd at different games to sleep with makes sense. Max Borenstein and Rodney Barnes continue to show that Magic Johnson cares about Cookie Kelly deeply, but he also wants to enjoy his life as a young NBA star and not settle down just yet. (This is probably why the Los Angeles Lakers didn’t sign off on the show!)

Invisible Man

The climax of “Invisible Man” is the Lakers vs. Celtics game, and there’s a lot on the line including Westhead and McKinney’s jobs, Johnson’s place in the Rookie of the Year conversation, and West’s sanity as he says that one loss to Boston is what led to the Lakers’ inability to beat them in the playoffs. Director Payman Benz shoots the Boston Garden like a haunted house complete with a racist, animated leprechaun, and both Pat Riley and Norm Nixon talk about the arena in the same hushed tones as a ghost story. And the ghost stories are true with the referees giving the Celtics every call to the soundtrack of Johnny Most’s (G. Larry Butler) incredibly biased/homer commentary while cutting to Buss and Bill Sharman sitting in the nosebleeds, and West getting taunted by his driver while listening to the game in the car because he doesn’t want to set foot in the Boston Garden again. Most and Chick Hearn’s (Spencer Garrett) makes the scene incredibly entertaining and also is a contrast between the old and new NBA.

Somehow, the Lakers win the game after Riley is ejected for saying he slept with the referee’s mother, and a fight breaks out after Larry Bird throws a ball at former All-Star/current ring-chasing enforcer/power forward Spencer Haywood (Wood Harris), who is finally getting some playing time from Westhead after benching him because of a misunderstanding that’s nagged at him the past two episodes. Like in the game at the beginning of the episode, the team is pretty much self-coaching, and the only reason Buss doesn’t fire Paul Westhead is because that would lose him McKinney too. However, Jason Segel taps into some rage and finally shows a little backbone with a “Fuck Boston” chant in the huddle and also giving the referees a piece of his mind down the stretch. He also has a good defensive game plan for Larry Bird, but Bird is that good telling his defender how and when he’ll make shots.

In the game sequences and through the reactions of the crowd in Boston plus animated and documentary-style elements like racist Boston fans putting human excrement in Bill Russell’s bed even after he won them 11 titles, Payman Benz shows how exciting the Lakers/Celtics rivalry was and also how it’s a microcosm of race relations in the United States through well-acted scenes with Quincy Isaiah, Solomon Hughes, and Rob Morgan as Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Earvin Johnson Sr. Segel also brings a lot of fear and anxiety to the role of Westhead while Adrien Brody adds a little more confidence and charisma to his portrayal of Pat Riley with the ejection sequence showing that he makes a great head coach.

As someone who has said “Fuck Boston” many times (Including today when they beat the Brooklyn Nets on a last minute shot in the first game of the NBA Playoffs), I’m definitely biased, but “Invisible Man” is one of the stronger episodes of Winning Time with a compelling visual style (Sunny LA vs the Crypt Keeper’s Lair aka the Boston Garden), strong characterization for Johnson, Riley, Westhead, and a demon-facing West, and sociopolitical commentary about being Black in the United States using the ultimate NBA rivalry as the lens.

Overall Verdict: 9.0

Review: Winning Time S1E6 “Memento Mori”

With head coach/Showtime mastermind Jack McKinney (Tracy Letts) in the hospital in a coma, this episode of Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty titled “Memento Mori” deals with the fragility of life and success. The main plots that writers Max Borenstein, Rodney Barnes, and Rebecca Bertuch focus on are Paul Westhead (A frazzled Jason Segel) coming to terms with being the Lakers new head coach with the help of William Shakespeare and Jerry West (Jason Clarke), Magic Johnson (Quincy Isaiah) dealing with fame and everyone literally or metaphorically wanting a piece of him, and finally Jerry Buss (John C. Reilly) using wine, women, (probably) cocaine, and the Jacksons to get Great Western Bank to postpone the payment of the loan he used to purchase the team.

After the heights of last episode, the ensemble cast of Winning Time is in a dark place, especially Westhead, who isn’t just McKinney’s assistant coach, but his best friend with director Tanya Hamilton lingering on a picture of them in better times. There’s a little bit of Segel’s usual roles he takes in his portrayal of Paul Westhead as a flailing Muppet even though he does show a cool-headed intellectual side that kicks in when he quotes Shakespeare in the locker room and goes with his game plan against the Denver Nuggets instead of McKinney’s. (Seen in hallucination sequences) He’s definitely more English professor than NBA head coach. In the space of an episode, Westhead exhibits growth going from barely being able to speak to the players and getting chewed up and spit out by the media to switching up the depth chart and freezing out a player (Spencer Haywood) that McKinney wanted to play a major role on the Lakers. But this is after freaking out in his car and offering the Lakers job to West and travel secretary/color commentator Pat Riley (Adrien Brody). Riley plays a nice cheerleader role to Westhead throughout the episode laying the foundation for his future role…

Memento Mori

On the flip side, “Memento Mori” spends a lot of time with Magic Johnson, and it’s not the most flattering picture as he chases fame and fortune while his coach is in a coma. Hamilton and cinematographer Todd Banhazl make a scene set at a sporting goods conference feel like visual overload using a nine-way split screen set up that’s The Brady Bunch meets Watchmen showing how every shoe company wants Johnson to hawk and wear their product. A Converse exec even uses some uncomfortable farm metaphors, but of course, he signs with them to have the opportunity to stick it to Larry Bird. It also fits the family friendly, “play it safe” image that his agent/current girlfriend’s dad Dr. Thomas Day (Steve Harris) wants for him instead of the gamble (That would have paid off.) of taking stock options and $1 per shoe sold from Nike. In the sales pitch sequence, Olli Haaskivi is a quirky scene stealer channeling the eccentricity and start-up energy of Phil Knight, who wanted to put Johnson’s name on the shoe and made it actually help his speed and performance, but everyone laughs him off in the episode, including the bankers that Buss parades Johnson to.

Magic Johnson’s relationship with women has been a recurring theme in Winning Time, and as mentioned in a conversation with Day, it’s his only vice because he steers away from drugs and alcohol. “Memento Mori” features his short-lived girlfriend/agent’s daughter Cindy Day (Rachel Hilson), who he is unsure actually loves him or just wants to be close to a famous person. In a monologue where Isaiah brings out an angry and darker side of Johnson, he talks about how they would be in a relationship while Johnson was calling Cookie Kelly in the other room basically cheating on her. And Cindy is cool with this. She also oversteps her boundaries by bringing flowers to Jack McKinney’s hospital room and getting Magic Johnson to sign autographs for the Great Western bank execs, which makes him uncomfortable because he’s in casual relationship mode and honestly just wants to be with Cookie, who appears in the final scene of the episode, and isn’t into the whole fame aspect.

Throughout the episode, Johnson is told by everyone from shoe execs to Richard Pryor (Mike Epps), who gives him great advice and helps get Spencer Haywood interested in cocaine, that his real first name, Earvin, is a thing of the past. There’s a little bit of sadness in Quincy Isaiah’s eyes every time someone uses the Magic nickname to refer to him personally and not in a marketing context all culminating in Cindy moaning “Magic” when he gives her an orgasm from oral sex and realizes that she cares him about him more as a celebrity than a human being. Although, he puts “Magic” on the prototype shoe, Knight actually does use his real name hinting at how Nike would use an athlete’s name and personality to sell now-iconic shoes a few years down the road. Borenstein, Barnes, and Bertuch show Magic Johnson basically being consumed by the fame aspect of his job as he skips a team hospital visit to sign a shoe deal with Converse and does business transactions and chats with Richard Pryor and cocaine baron Dr. Mike in the tunnel before the game. However, he does manage to find some distance between his personal and work life by using a line Dr. Day said about Magic not bringing good news to have him relay the news about breaking up with his daughter before sending him to Michigan State’s campus to personally invite Cookie to a Lakers vs. Detroit Pistons game.

Memento Mori

The third main plot of “Memento Mori” shows Jerry Buss and his business partner Frank Mariani (Stephen Adly Guirgis) try to wheel and deal their way out of losing the team by getting Great Western to extend their loan and line of credit by marketing them as “the official bank of the Lakers”. They don’t buy it, but Buss shows them enough of a good time at the Forum Club to extend the loan until June 1980 aka right after the NBA Finals. Unbeknownst to the players, coaches, and other front office folks, the Lakers basically have to win a championship or go broke. John C. Reilly also gets to show a vulnerable side of Jerry Buss when his mother Jessie (Sally Field), who raised him by herself has health issues that hinder her from doing her job as accountant. What begins as him being furious that she used the wrong checking account for vendors and didn’t file the right paperwork to transfer team ownership to his ex-wife ends up with him monologuing on a balcony about how she raised him as a 19 year old single mom in the middle of the Dust Bowl. Jeanie Buss (Hadley Robinson) continues to show her quality by alerting her father to her grandmother’s health issues and also acting as a buffer between Magic Johnson and Cindy and Dr. Day when she can tell that they’re making him uncomfortable before the game.

By contrasting Jack McKinney’s coma and time in the hospital with Magic Johnson chasing fame and Jerry Buss sweet talking Sacramento bankers, Max Borenstein, Rodney Barnes, and Rebecca Bertuch really put life in perspective in a sobering downer of an episode. Jason Segel’s Paul Westhead is the standout performance of “Memento Mori” going from goofiness to anxiety and poignancy with Shakespeare quotes that befuddle his team and sports journalists, but act as kind of coping mechanism for him to deal with a stressful situation. Quincy Isaiah also continues to find the darkness and charisma in the character of Johnson switching between Magic and Earvin by lowering his eyes, dropping his smile, and in some cases, raising his voice.

Overall Verdict: 8.2

TV Review: Winning Time S1E4 “Who the F**k is Jack McKinney?”

Who the F**k is Jack McKinney?

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.

Who the F**k is Jack McKinney?

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

Winning Time S1E3: The Best Is Yet To Come

The Best Is Yet To Come

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.

The Best Is Yet To Come

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.

The Best Is Yet To Come

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

TV Review: Winning Time S1E2 “Is That All There Is?”

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.

Is That All There Is?

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.

TV Review: Winning Time S1E1 “The Swan”

Winning Time

HBO Max’s new limited series Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty transports you to a time when one of the biggest sports/entertainment franchises in the world was struggling and being used as a bargaining chip in a divorce settlement, the NBA was going bankrupt, and one of its greatest players of all time was just a kid from Lansing, Michigan struggling with if he wanted to go pro or stay in school for a year. Director Adam McKay and writers Max Borenstein and Jim Hecht cast the perennial champion Los Angeles Lakers as underdogs in this fast-paced, faster talking, and exposition-filled pilot episode. The plot revolves around Jerry Buss (A wheeling and dealing John C. Reilly) trying to buy the Lakers from the racist, sexist, and generally unpleasant Jack Kent Cooke (Michael O’Keefe) while also trying to convince Lakers coach/literally the NBA logo Jerry West (Jason Clarke) to draft 6’9″ point guard/phenom Earvin “Magic” Johnson (Quincy Isaiah).

Besides being a Lakers fan who was too young to experience this era of basketball, what initially drew me to Winning Time is the rumblings about the show not being afraid to show the foibles of such legends of the game like Johnson, West, and Kareem-Abdul-Jabbar (A hilarious and unbothered Solomon Hughes). And the rumors are true with the show opening with a soberingly shot, drab introductory sequence of the worst day in Magic Johnson’s life, which was when he was diagnosed with HIV in 1991. This scene demonstrates Isaiah’s talent and range as he’s barely holding a smile together while his agent/chauffeur weeps in the car. However, the pace picks up after that, and John C. Reilly truly establishes himself as the star of the show as new Lakers owner Buss even though he doesn’t officially own the team until the episode’s closing moments. Reilly and McKay play up Jerry Buss’ playboy image by having him wake up with naked, uninterested blonde while he’s monologuing about the brilliance of basketball and its potential as entertainment. The fourth wall is broken early and often with Buss acting as the episode’s de-facto narrator and doing a variety of things like monologuing about the NBA’s unpopularity, the state of his finances, and how Jerry West still hates his life because he could never beat the Celtics in the NBA Finals.

Borenstein and Hecht don’t shy away from discussing the NBA’s main issue at the time, which was marketing a league mainly featured Black athletes to a white audience. The role of race is a main thread in “The Swan” with graphics saying “Black” and White” popping up when pundits and men like Cooke compare Magic Johnson to Larry Bird, the other big 1979 draft pick. Johnson and his father Earvin Johnson Sr. (Rob Morgan) share frank conversations about how they both code switch to make white people in places of power like them, but Johnson Sr. says that being deferential to them hasn’t gotten him anywhere in life as he gently tries to be realistic with his son.

Winning Time' Fact Check: Did Magic Johnson Really Almost Reject the  Lakers' Offer?

Using tracking shots and home video style footage, Adam McKay and cinematographer Todd Banzahl portray Johnson’s family as close-knit, warm, and full of love with his devout Seventh Day Adventist mother Christine (LisaGay Hamilton) calling out his “Magic” nickname every time it’s brought up. It’s a world away from night clubs, champagne and cocaine-filled white parties, and fox coats and combined with 35 mm shots of Johnson Sr. training Magic Johnson in basketball between his garbage collection shifts, the sequences show Johnson’s clear passion for basketball even if he is overwhelmed and starstruck in this first episode. One of the episode’s most powerful scenes shows Johnson hiding on the couch in his very dark hotel room after being humiliated by the Lakers’ current starting point guard Norm Nixon (Played by his son DeVaughn Nixon.) The million watt smile is turned off, and he’s a twenty year old who misses home and might want to play another year of college ball. You can see the condescending things that Nixon and Jack Kent Cooke said to him in-person in Isaiah’s face as he explores a darker, sadder side of an icon. Maybe, he wasn’t quick enough to play point guard in the NBA, and the Lakers would be better off listening to Jerry West and taking Sidney Moncrief, who was more of a scorer.

Magic Johnson and Jerry Buss definitely take center stage in “The Swan” with the episode’s title being a metaphor for how Buss talks a big game about running the Lakers, but is really paddling for dear life. He has to take a loan from his ex-wife to cover the cash part of the deal while the rest of the purchase is in property, which is almost vetoed by Jack Kent Cooke, who is resentful of Buss’ dressed down demeanor and popularity among his female employees. And speaking of female employees, Max Borenstein and Jim Hecht give a substantial subplot to Claire Rothman (Gaby Hoffmann), the future president of the Forum. She is harassed by Cooke and his cronies throughout the episode and is surprised that contrary to his reputation, Jerry Buss values her business acumen more than her looks mentioning that she put on the first rock concert in a sports arena. In this and a night club sequence, you can definitely see the entertainment side of the “Showtime” era take flight, and Rothman also ends up taking Buss’ daughter, Jeanie (Hadley Robinson) under her wing. In an almost sweet moment, Jeanie Buss already being employed by the Lakers is a key reason why Jerry Buss ends up playing a financial game of chicken with Jack Kent Cooke so they can continue to have a good relationship. She only has a couple scenes, but has faith in Magic Johnson from watching him play in the college national championship and would rather work for the Lakers than finish college.

Winning Time' Fact Check: Did Magic Johnson Really Almost Reject the  Lakers' Offer?

Acting-wise, John C. Reilly and Quincy Silas carry this episode stepping in the roles of iconic sports figure while imbuing them with quirks and vulnerabilities. However, Jason Clarke’s Jerry West almost steals the show from the broad comedy of a West Virginia gentleman breaking golf clubs and dropping F-bombs when Buss and Lakers GM Bill Sharman mention drafting Magic Johnson to real sadness when he talks to Buss about how Cooke cared more about selling tickets and making money than winning basketball games. Black and white footage of the Celtics beating the Lakers six times in the 1960s flood over his profanity-filled monologue, and his description of the NBA Finals MVP trophy he got when the Lakers lost is darkly hilarious. It’s almost like Jerry West is reliving a war he fought in with the flashbacks like news reels. Clarke and Reilly are rage and serenity in every scene they share and shows that the front office action will be just as compelling as the on-court action in Winning Time.

After dozens of fourth wall breaks in the first 20 minutes or so, this part of Adam McKay’s directing style can get annoying, but he, Borenstein, and Hecht find a rhythm by focusing on the flaws and outsized personalities of Jerry Buss, Magic Johnson, and Jerry West. There’s a real seat of his pants energy to any scene that John C. Reilly is in, and it’s fitting he gets the final shot to himself drinking a bottle of bourbon while laughing about how he bought the Lakers. The scenes he shares with Silas are much more wholesome than the wheeling and dealing ones, and their relationship is one to look forward to in upcoming episodes. Reilly brings a Dionysian physicality and California chill to the role of Jerry Buss, and Winning Time is worth checking out for his performance alone.

Overall Verdict: 8.3

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