Type keyword(s) to search

Recommended: They Call Me Magic on Apple TV+

The life and career of basketball legend Magic Johnson gets the docuseries treatment.
  • Magic Johnson in They Call Me Magic (Photo: Apple TV+)
    Subscribe to Primetimer's Recommended newsletter and get our guide to the very best series, movies and specials in your inbox every Friday.
    They Call Me Magic | Apple TV+
    Sports docuseries (4 episodes) | TV-MA

    What's They Call Me Magic About?

    Earvin "Magic" Johnson changed the face of the NBA with his flashy play and magnetic personality. This four-part docuseries follows his life, his career, and his shocking HIV diagnosis in 1991, which arguably changed the course of sports and the culture.

    Who's involved?

    • Earvin "Magic" Johnson, one of the defining pro basketball players of the 1980s and the centerpiece of the "Showtime" era Los Angeles Lakers, who won 5 NBA titles in that decade, and who had to retire from the game in 1991 when he was diagnosed with HIV.
    • Rick Famuyiwa (director), who's directed films like Brown Sugar, The Wood, and Dope.
    • Earlitha "Cookie" Johnson, who was Earvin's college sweetheart and who took a long and winding road to becoming his wife.
    • Larry Bird, Boston Celtics legend and Magic's chief basketball rival throughout his college and pro career.
    • Michael Jordan, greatest basketball player of all time whose reign immediately followed Magic's.
    • Barack Obama, 44th President of the United States.
    • Bill Clinton, 42nd President of the United States.
    • Snoop Dogg, lifelong Los Angeles Lakers fan.

    Why (and to whom) do we recommend it?

    Hot on the heels of HBO's limited Winning Time, a dramatized version of the Los Angeles Lakers and their basketball dynasty of the 1980s — and following ESPN's The Last Dance, in which Michael Jordan burnished his own legacy — it makes all the sense in the world that Apple would cash in with a Magic Johnson docuseries. While Winning Time gives the most bang for your buck when it comes to the showmanship and debauchery of those "Showtime" Lakers teams, and The Last Dance gives an intense psychological profile of Jordan's insane competitive instincts, They Call Me Magic covers all the bases when it comes to the Laker great, making for a comprehensive biography, even if certain aspects could have gone deeper.

    The four-part doc doesn't exactly hammer the audience over the head with a thesis, but its binding theme is the distinction between "Magic" — the showman, on-court superstar, beloved celebrity — and Earvin, the true essence of the man. "Magic," we learn, wasn't a nickname he gave himself, nor was it something he relished. (His mom sure didn't seem to care for it either.) But while the friction between Earvin and Magic doesn't present itself as some grand psychodrama, it does inform quite a few of the major events the documentary touches upon, from his basketball career and rivalry with white farmboy Larry Bird to his often rocky relationship with Cookie to the decision to go public with his HIV diagnosis.

    And while Magic himself is an unsurprisingly gregarious commentator on his own life, by far the biggest draw to They Call Me Magic is the galaxy of starry faces who sit down for interviews. I guess this would be the "They" of the title: from basketball greats like Jordan, Bird, and Charles Barkley to Laker-connected personalities like Pat Riley and Paula Abdul to celebrity admirers like Samuel L. Jackson and Snoop Dogg. Any documentary that can nail down talking heads from Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and Dr. Anthony Fauci is at the very least delivering a fascinating Greek chorus for the story it's telling.

    That narrative unfolds in a distinctly episodic nature, with the first installment covering Magic's high school and college career, the origins (and racial implications) of his rivalry with Bird, and his rookie season with the Lakers. Episode two is the one that overlaps most heavily with Winning Time and which probably could have been a standalone documentary feature in and of itself. Episode three — focusing on Johnson's 1991 HIV diagnosis — is the most fascinating, while episode four — focusing on Johnson's entrepreneurial endeavors — is the most self-promotional.  This makes for a somewhat lopsided affair at times, but it also feels like we're getting Earvin "Magic" Johnson in all his facets.

    Pairs well with

    • Winning Time (HBO Max), which tells the story of the Showtime-era Lakers as a star-studded, often sinful narrative drama that works overtime to evoke those heady '80s days.
    • The Last Dance, ESPN's multi-part documentary on Michael Jordan's career with the Chicago Bulls, which seems like a clear inspiration for They Call Me Magic and which does an even better job of getting at the competitive psyche of its subject.

  • They Call Me Magic
    Complete series drops on Apple TV+ on April 22nd.
    Starring: Magic Johnson, Earlitha 'Cookie' Johnson, Samuel L. Jackson, Paula Abdul, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Barack Obama, Anthony Fauci, Charles Barkley, Bill Clinton, and Snoop Dogg.
    Directed by: Rick Famuyiwa.

    TOPICS: They Call Me Magic, Apple TV+, Anthony Fauci, Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Charles Barkley, Earlitha 'Cookie' Johnson, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Paula Abdul, Rick Famuyiwa, Samuel L. Jackson, Snoop Dogg