Winning Time review: John C Reilly imbues Dr Buss with a manic positive energy and bohemian flair

Super stellar glamour, exquisite Seventies and Eighties production design and vibrant machismo make this a wildly watchable show

Nick Hilton
Tuesday 29 March 2022 07:43
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Trailer: Winning Time

I understand the basic premise of basketball – put the big orange ball into the correct hoop – but beyond that elevator pitch, the game is a mystery to me. It’s full of fussy rules and arcane procedures, not to mention a cultural history that flourishes around, and at times supersedes, the actual game. But even I, doofus that I am, am aware of the LA Lakers and Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and they – part of something referred to as the “Showtime” era of professional basketball – are the subjects of Adam McKay’s new mini-series, Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty (Sky Atlantic).

Winning Time focuses on two men at the start of their journeys into basketball. John C Reilly plays Jerry Buss (Dr Buss, as he prefers to be called), who acquires the Lakers franchise through a complex cash and real estate deal, and makes a 19-year-old college baller, Earvin “Magic” Johnson (Quincy Isaiah), his first big signing in 1979. Charismatic, pragmatic and highly affable, Dr Buss is on a mission to save the NBA, and he believes his Michiganite protégé – who shares much of that charisma, pragmatism, and affability – is the man to do it. It’s Dr Buss and Magic Johnson contra mundum, though if you know anything of the latter’s biography, you know where this tale will end up.

The show’s executive producer, Don’t Look Up director Adam McKay, recently detailed in an interview how his decision to cast Reilly as Buss, rather than long-time collaborator Will Ferrell, ended his decades-long friendship with his Anchorman lead. So was it worth it? Reilly imbues Buss with a manic positive energy (when asked by a rival if he’s a happy man, he responds, “You only get so many summers, right?”) and the bohemian flair he brought to Boogie Nights. Above all else, he is wildly watchable – as is the whole show.

The set of tricks used by The Big Short in 2015 to make the sub-prime mortgage crisis palatable to commercial audiences are wheeled out once again. All the primary characters break the fourth wall, character names and titles appear on screen (Donald Sterling is referred to as the “second worst Donald of the Eighties”), and other moments of visual panache – frequent montages, photographs coming to life in newspapers, the words BLACK and WHITE being typed out to make explicit dog whistle racism – abound. It’s also possible to read Winning Time as the first post-Succession TV show: not just in the Nicholas Britell score and the use of period-appropriate filmmaking techniques, but in the dense and jet-black quality of the dialogue. Whether you find all of this claustrophobic will depend on your tolerance for tricksy, self-conscious direction.

The cast also has a Succession-like sprawl. Newcomer Isaiah nails the braggadocio of a 19-year-old Magic Johnson. “I love you,” he tells his childhood sweetheart Cookie (Tamera Tomakili). “Not as much as you love you – the rest of us just coming off the bench,” she replies. Jason Clarke, meanwhile, plays Lakers coach Jerry West with dead-eyed ferocity (and looks rather like The Head from Art Attack in the process). Around them, Gaby Hoffmann, Hadley Robinson, Sally Field (it’s fair to say the women get less to do in the drama) and Solomon Hughes, Adrian Brody and Jason Segel revolve like orbiting planets.

For all its super stellar glamour and the exquisite Seventies and Eighties production design that’s very à la mode (I’m thinking of The Deuce and Minx here, and the treatment of basketball in Winning Time is every bit as pornographic as the treatment of, well, pornography, there), Winning Time is just a whirlwind of benign energy. I might not know a point guard from Right Guard, a power forward from a Power Ranger, or a center from a centre, but the vibrant machismo of Winning Time manages to transcend that language barrier.

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