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Winning Time is so captivated with its Adam McKay style, it forgets what made the Lakers exciting

  • "Winning Time showcases many of the most grating tendencies of McKay’s recent work," says Jack Hamilton of the HBO's Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty, which McKay executive produces and directs. "So many different characters break the fourth wall and address the camera, and so frequently, that the show’s narrative coherence is undermined from its opening minutes. The editing is pointlessly flashy, with jump-cuts and split screens interjected into otherwise banal exchanges between characters. Obvious subtexts are rendered as text, sometimes literally in the form of title cards that blare onto the screen. The sum effect is a smug brand of 'comedy' that congratulates you for being in on the joke while not really bothering to make many jokes. Compounding the tonal and storytelling inconsistencies of Winning Time is how the show actually looks. In order to achieve 'period' veracity, the filmmakers alternately employ the visual aesthetics of grainy 8 mm and 16 mm film stock and old-fashioned Betacam tapes. The novelty of this is initially interesting but quickly grows distracting, as there’s no apparent logic to when and why each style is applied. (There are many times when the format changes from one shot to the next within the same scene, an effect so jarring it can feel like a continuity error.)" Hamilton adds: "Winning Time is so captivated with its own style that it misapprehends what made its subject exciting in the first place. There’s a restless, frantic quality to the show that seems to want to pay tribute to the run-and-gun style of the Showtime Lakers themselves, but those teams weren’t great because they were a bunch of devil-may-care loose cannons. They were ridiculously controlled, and their thrilling, up-tempo style was only possible because the players enacting it—starting with Magic Johnson—were preternaturally intelligent and disciplined in execution. Winning Time feels more like watching a bunch of middle schoolers trying to fling no-look passes and ill-fated lobs to each other at recess, the occasional moments of connection overwhelmed by a general atmosphere of chaos."


    • Adam McKay's signature style is spreading...to Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber: The McKay style really goes into overdrive on Winning Time, says Linda Holmes. "That first episode has your fourth-wall breaking, your explanations to the camera, your freeze-frames, your different film stocks, your big captions — it has a ton of this," she says. "A lot of this. So, so much of this. And it continues throughout the series. And again, either this is your thing, or it is not your thing. I was more concerned, however, to see these same tics all over Showtime's series Super Pumped, which is about (former) Uber head Travis Kalanick (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Adam McKay didn't make Super Pumped, but boy, would you ever think he did....As I said, Adam McKay has a thing that he does, and some people really like it, and it can be funny, and it's certainly stylish. But in excess, it can tip toward the obnoxious, it can flirt with the smug, and particularly if you're talking about a guy like Kalanick, I'm not sure making the whole thing more obnoxious or more smug is really the way to go. I think McKay's influence as someone who tries to dig into unsavory characters and weird moments in history with this kind of detached hard stare will certainly continue — he's on tap to make a movie about Theranos, starring Jennifer Lawrence, for Apple. And in general, I don't think we're anywhere near the end of the boom in television and film about hustlers and scammers and plain old eager operators. But everybody does not have to use the same style, and that style — which can be charming when used to talk about Magic Johnson and NBA defenses, isn't the best or the most palatable way to talk about guys who already seem kinda ... puffed-up."
    • Winning Time is America's answer to The Crown: "After all, elite athletes are about as close to royalty as this country gets. Their reigns are even called dynasties," says Alison Herman. "And just as The Crown took several seasons to reach the real heart of its story, Winning Time seems designed to play out over years, not just weeks. Whatever flaws its first episodes may have, the show at least looks like it’ll have time to work them out. The Crown is now headed into its fifth season of a planned six with a whopping 21 Emmys in hand. This outcome wasn’t guaranteed; to reach such rarefied air, Winning Time runs a similar set of risks as the Netflix series did at the start. A common critique of historical dramas holds that they can be about as exciting as a staged reading of a Wikipedia page. That may not seem like an issue with personalities as big, or cocaine habits as raging, as the 1980s NBA. Still, Winning Time has to contend with the same obstacle as any show that recreates real-life events while stretching them out over several episodes. When we already know the outcome of any given conflict, the resulting story gets sapped of tension. In a world as dependent on unknown outcomes as sports, that potential inertia is an existential threat."
    • Winning Time had to be over the top: "Clearly, we're not supposed to assume that the true story behind it all, which saw Magic Johnson win five championships with the franchise, actually looked like what we saw on Sunday night: a jockified version of Succession," says Brady Langmann, adding: "Imagine a series about the '80s Lakers that played it straight. We'd see Armani embodied, Pat Riley, muttering and looking stern-faced from the sidelines. Jerry West would've just been a short-tempered boardroom presence. Maybe we'd never get the hilarious recreation of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's Airplane! scene, which Winning Time dutifully offers up. Would Magic even smile? That series would be equivalent to the glow-down we saw in Peacock's Bel-Air, which was so desperate to be capital-P Prestige that it sucked the fun and heart out of what Will Smith and co. accomplished in the first Fresh Prince outing. Here, we see how it must have felt to suit up in purple and gold at the time, even if what we actually see doesn't look a whole heck of a lot like the real-life history."
    • Winning Time is a cringeworthy disaster: "As dismal as the Los Angeles Lakers’ current 2021-2022 campaign, Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty is guaranteed to turn the stomachs of not only Boston Celtics fans, but anyone hoping for more than an egregiously cartoonish and ham-fisted hagiography executed with all the subtlety of a no-look pass to the nuts," says Nick Schager. "Corny, superficial and severely full of itself, HBO’s ten-part series wants to be both an unabashed celebration and a complicated study of flawed characters. However, in the hands of creators Max Borenstein and Jim Hecht, and executive producer and director Adam McKay, it plays as a fictionalized fanboy take on a beloved franchise, marked by mounds of obvious exposition, unbearably cringe-worthy aesthetics, and a steady stream of literal winking at the camera that’s then embellished by cutesy 'ding!' sound effects."
    • Winning Time is a show about the idea of Los Angeles: "For as much as Winning Time...is about basketball, it's also about the Lakers' version of Los Angeles, the dreamy glittering dream of the city that has lured so many people time and time again," says Esther Zuckerman. "In some ways, the show itself somehow feels like Los Angeles: It can be vast in scope and overwhelming. Sometimes watching it feels like listening to someone who just snorted a huge amount of cocaine. It's occasionally sleazy, and borders, in some moments, on exploitation. If you bail you can't really be faulted. You're just the ingenue who packed her bags and got on a bus back home. If there's an underlying thesis to Winning Time, it's that Jerry Buss, embodied by Reilly as a jovial horndog with a combover, reimagined the Lakers in the image of Los Angeles—flashy and celebrity-obsessed. On screen, introduced walking out of the Playboy Mansion the morning after what was presumably an orgy, pitching his idea for the franchise. He wants basketball to feel like a night at the Mansion. There will be excitement and celebrities and boobs, the latter of which will come in the form of the halftime entertainment, the dancers that would eventually become known as the Laker Girls."
    • Winning Time gets the L.A. cocaine era correct: "Shows often try too hard to recreate an iconic era with teeth-gnashing results," says Bill Shea. "This show, so far, is thriving on the celluloid La La Land that is almost its own character. This show is Steely Dan’s 'Glamour Profession' come to life. I also appreciate how Winning Time is making race central to the story and doesn’t seem to gloss over it."
    • Winning Time's cinematography tried to evoke a "pop-culture mixtape": “The early conversations were that it would be shot on film because of the time period, and because Adam’s a film guy,” says co-cinematographer Todd Banhazl, who shot Episodes 1, 2, 5, 6, 9, and 10. “And we knew from the scripts that the show was going to be mixing in footage that we had shot, period footage that we had shot, real archival with photos. It was like a pop culture mixtape, pulling in from all these references from our collective memory.”
    • Michael Chiklis says Adam McKay offered him his dream role of Red Auerbach after he filmed a cameo for Don't Look Up: “He said, ‘you should go talk to your agent because I just offered you the role of Red Auerbach in the Lakers series I’m doing for HBO.’” Chiklis says. “I looked at him and said, ‘don’t f*ck with me.’ He said, ‘I would never f*ck with you.’ Sure enough, he made this offer.”
    • DeVaughn Nixon says when his dad Norm Nixon found out he was playing him, he said: "Okay, cool. Just don’t make me look stupid": "He’s just gonna step back and let me have my turn," the younger Nixon says of portraying his father on Winning Time. DeVaughn Nixon says producers auditioned him not knowing that he was a veteran actor who appeared on shows ranging from Runaways to Sonny with a Chance to The Secret Life of the American Teenager and NCIS. "Everybody thinks that (the producers) just gave me the role," he says. "They had no idea who I was; they had no idea that I acted. They literally thought I walked off the street, came in and auditioned, and I was my dad’s son and happened to look like him. But I got a callback and then I found out that I got it. And interestingly enough, I beat my brother for it. (Laughs.) My brother has done some stuff, but I was the more seasoned actor, I would say. I couldn’t be more thrilled, man."
    • Jason Clarke says Lakers owner Jeanie Buss greeted him and John C. Reilly warmly during a recent game: "She was lovely, just lovely," says Clarke, who plays Jerry West. "She just couldn't have been nicer. I'm not kidding you. We were very touched. It was very moving. It's her father, you know? I don't think we'll see the likes of him again." Clarke says he'd like to meet Jerry West, "but all indications are he is not going to want to watch this or he's not going to be interested in it."

    TOPICS: Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty, HBO, The Crown, Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber, Adam McKay, DeVaughn Nixon , Jason Clarke, Jeanie Buss, Jerry West, John C. Reilly, Michael Chiklis, Norm Nixon, Todd Banhazl, Cinematography