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HBO's Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty Returns with Improved but Uneven Game

Season Two of “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty”—a trashy, gaudy soap opera about the high-flying, run-and-gun Showtime Lakers—begins with a reenactment from Game One of the 1984 NBA Finals. A charged win at the Boston Garden by the Lakers ends with the Los Angeles team rushing to the team bus before a gaggle of ruthlessly rowdy Celtics fans swarm their transport. The 1984 series would pit the league’s two biggest superstars, the flashy Magic Johnson, and the blue-collar Larry Bird—a rivalry rife for easy rooting interests—for peak consumption by TV audiences at a rate that would remake the NBA into a powerhouse sports league. 

And yet, this iteration of “Winning Time,” from creatives Max Borenstein and Jim Hecht, doesn’t wholly center Magic (Quincy Isaiah) and Bird (Sean Patrick Small). Instead, the showrunners retrace the steps to that series. It leaps back to 1980, winding through infighting, coaching changes, and new loves before settling into 1984. While the season has a sharper sheen—particularly in its basketball scenes—this is still a series where the parts are more engaging than the whole. 

The first half of Season Two, an engaging but unfocused sequence of episodes, sees the Lakers fresh off their first championship confronting the spoils of winning and the challenges of growing up. The philandering Magic is fighting a paternity suit against a woman he certainly had a child with (the superstar may have a ring to his name, but he hasn’t matured). He and the zen Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Solomon Hughes) are still clashing, Norm Nixon (DeVaughn Nixon) is angling for Magic’s playing time, the special relationship between Magic and team owner Jerry Buss (John C. Reilly) is cracking, and Magic’s former girlfriend Cookie (Tamera Tomakili) looms in his heart. Isaiah moves through the frame with greater confidence, the certainty that happens when your new clothes fit just right. The charm, belief, insecurity, hollowness, selfishness, and unbridled desire to be loved but never questioned isn’t a mere impersonation of Magic. Isaiah's internalization suggests a grasp of the character as a person, not a role. 

It’s puzzling why the showrunners continually switch focus away from Magic. At some point, “Winning Time” morphs into a Paul Westhead (Jason Segel) character study. Segel can certainly turn in a layered, nuanced performance, but the downfall of Westhead isn’t the stuff of the Shakespearean tragic hero. His fatal flaw of shaky self-doubt wears thin in the face of far more intriguing narrative threads left dangling in the wind. The transformation of Pat Riley (a galvanizing Adrien Brody) from a haggard assistant coach to the bold head coach who’d guide the Lakers to multiple titles occurs in a blinding flash. Bird’s tragic backstory zooms by quickly too. The series’ shortsightedness is ironic because Westhead’s downfall stemmed from not knowing that superstars win championships. In the process, "Winning Time" similarly forgets its stars. 

That misstep doesn’t mean this cast lacks standout moments: Jason Clarke as the kinetically deranged Jerry West steals every scene; Small gets plenty to chew on in the final episode; Reilly remains a highlight when given the stage. In a press conference scene, when Buss must announce who will be the Lakers’ new coach, Reilly’s unmatched comic timing pairs perfectly with his dramatic skills to craft a scene that's equally uncomfortable, hilarious, and character-defining. But those moments, hampered by a shaky script, happen in bursts rather than concerted streams. 

This season does a slightly better job of capturing the era's spirit, particularly a man-on-street sequence commenting on the Lakers’ losing streak and the ostentatious party atmosphere of the Forum Club. But other than a passing reference to Reagan, connected to Buss’ strategy of taking on more debt for greater growth, "Winning Time" still avoids conversing with the world around it. It is insulated from how this team fit in this city in that era.      

While the show’s creators remain enraptured by an incomprehensible aesthetic, often reliant on bad filters, the gameplay on display is far better here than in Season One. The high-flying Lakers finally fly with a sharper rhythm to the edit, a smarter sense of verticality, and a sense that these aren’t actors playing basketball players but ballers. Which, once again, makes you wonder why this season didn’t go all in on Magic versus Bird. The chance of a third season studying that rivalry offers real anticipation even as its withdrawal undercuts this second installment’s prospects. While Season Two of “Winning Time” is much improved, it pulls up just short of making a run.   

The entire season was screened for review. Season Two of "Winning Time" premieres on HBO on August 6th.

Robert Daniels

Robert Daniels is an Associate Editor at Based in Chicago, he is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association (CFCA) and Critics Choice Association (CCA) and regularly contributes to the New York TimesIndieWire, and Screen Daily. He has covered film festivals ranging from Cannes to Sundance to Toronto. He has also written for the Criterion Collection, the Los Angeles Times, and Rolling Stone about Black American pop culture and issues of representation.

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