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‘Winning Time’ is great junk food TV

by Paul Sullivan Chicago Tribune | May 8, 2022 at 2:40 a.m.

The day after the series finale of your favorite TV show is always difficult.

You're trying to decipher the meaning of the ending while wondering if you'll ever find another show as enjoyable as this one.

Sorry, but I won't be accepting any calls, emails, texts, DMs, instant messages or beeper messages Monday while processing today's finale of the HBO show "Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty." Consider me on the IL.

Knowing I'll have to spend the rest of the NBA postseason without Magic Johnson, Pat Riley, Jerry West, Jerry Buss and the rest of my favorite characters is distressing me to no end.

If you don't have HBO -- or don't spend time in many of our favorite roadside motels that advertise the premium channel on their marquees -- you've been missing out on one of the greatest sports-related dramas in television history.

As the title implies, "Winning Time" is based on the Los Angeles Lakers' rise to glory in the 1979-80 season after drafting Johnson out of Michigan State to team with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Among the plotlines that figure to be resolved Sunday are:

• Will Magic be able to rekindle his relationship with his old girlfriend, Cookie, after a year of nonstop sexual escapades?

• With his mother having just died and his team in the NBA Finals, will Buss suffer yet another in a series of emotional breakdowns?

• Can interim coach Paul Westhead and assistant coach Riley head off the scheming Jack McKinney, the head coach they replaced after his skull-breaking bike accident?

• Will Magic learn the sky hook from Kareem and get revenge on his childhood hero, Julius Erving, after Dr. J embarrassed him on the court following a night out on the town?

• Can West ever find inner happiness?

If you haven't guessed, "Winning Time" is more soap opera than sports drama. That's why there are so few scenes of the actors playing basketball. The Lakers and their famous players and coaches are the hook, but the off-court drama is the meat and potatoes of the series.

It's based on Jeff Pearlman's book "Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s." But the series takes dramatic license throughout, fictionalizing events to suit the narrative. The basic story is based on reality, but the characters aren't always true to life -- or at least to our perceptions of them.

Most notable is West, an iconic player whose silhouette is used as the NBA logo. In "Winning Time" he is portrayed as a Bobby Knight-like bully -- constantly angry and screaming and obsessed with beating the archrival Boston Celtics.

It's a far cry from the image West maintained as a player and NBA executive, and he recently demanded HBO to issue a retraction. (Spoiler alert: It didn't.) West even said he was willing to take his case to the Supreme Court, which was something his character in the show might've said.

You can't blame West for being upset with the show's portrayal of him. Jason Clarke, a fine actor, makes West out as a raging lunatic with a severe personality disorder. Then again, everyone on this show is cartoonish, especially Buss, Magic and Riley.

Most sensible viewers would quickly understand that Clarke's West is a caricature of the Lakers executive, not necessarily the real deal. The show is similar to 1980s over-the-top, prime-time soap operas such as "Dallas" and "Dynasty," with a little bit of "The White Shadow" mixed in for hoops fanatics.

Junk food TV at its best. It looks and sounds like a 1980s TV show with bad hairpieces, funky-looking clothes, moody background music and plenty of overacting by stars Adrien Brody (Riley), Jason Segel (Westhead) and Sally Field (Buss' mom). John C. Reilly's nod as Buss has a distinct J.R. Ewing flavor to it. Like the famed Texas tycoon of "Dallas," Buss is portrayed as an amoral creep who still is hard to hate and always gets off the best lines.

"Winning Time" is not meant to be high drama like "Downton Abbey," and in fact it slows to a crawl whenever it turns serious. Buss is one of the main characters, but I've had enough of the dysfunctional family plotline. Particularly uninteresting is the story of daughter/future executive Jeanie Buss, one of the only real-life characters -- along with Cookie Johnson -- whose public image doesn't take a beating.

Everyone else apparently was fair game, including the L.A. sports writers, who in one episode are dumb enough to drive to the airport to interview Magic Johnson about an upcoming road trip. Like West, the Lakers beat writers of the 1980s should take their case to the Supreme Court for being portrayed as complete dopes.

The parts I enjoyed most were the cameos -- arrogant Celtics honcho Red Auerbach, shady UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian and a misanthropic Larry Bird, the yin to Magic's yang. These are sports figures we've seen on TV and read about but never really knew.

Whether the portrayals we're seeing in "Winning Time" bear any resemblance to the humans they're based on is irrelevant to me as a viewer. It's an enjoyable 10-part series, not a documentary.

Print Headline: ‘Winning Time’ is great junk food TV

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