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RIP Winning Time: What HBO’s Showtime Lakers Show Got Right & Where it Fell Short

Low ratings were a major factor, but far from the whole story — let’s take a closer look at the forces that ultimately got Winning Time cancelled after just two seasons and 17 episodes.

Remember when seven was a lucky number? Looking through the lens of prestige television in 2023, call it a vestige of a bygone era — or at least one in which WGA and SAG-AFTRA work stoppages had not yet brought Hollywood to a painful but necessary halt.

Not a single one of us expected HBO to call it quits on Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty after a seven-episode sophomore season, but Sept. 17’s surprise series finale nonetheless cut the party short at the Fabulous Forum after just 17 total episodes. This came with a special sort of sting knowing that Max Borenstein and Jim Hecht’s big-budgeted, star-powered sports drama ended with the Los Angeles Lakers‘ devastating loss to the rival Boston Celtics in Game 7 of the 1984 NBA Finals.

After all, the show is called Winning Time, and not for nothing, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Pat Riley, and the Purple & Gold would go on to win three of the next four NBA championships, including two against those very same C’s, cementing all-time status for the Showtime era out west.

A confluence of factors contributed to such an early crashout that eerily parallels that of the Lakers’ upset defeat to the Houston Rockets in the first round of the 1981 NBA Playoffs — and while low ratings only tell part of the story, they’re an unavoidable piece of this puzzle that ultimately got Winning Time cancelled.

Now that the show is history (barring a drive for resurrection at another network), let’s take a closer look at how we got here and what’s worth remembering the most about its impactful but brief run.

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What Did Winning Time Do Right?

SAM DUNN: Winning Time, based on Jeff Pearlman’s best-selling Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s, spared few expenses when it came to capturing the glitzy, sun-soaked aesthetic of Los Angeles in the 1980s, and optimized a stacked cast with a dynamic balance of headline-worthy all-stars (John C. Reilly as Jerry Buss, Adrien Brody as Pat Riley, Michael Chiklis as Red Auerbach) with up-and-coming phenoms (Quincy Isaiah as Magic Johnson, Hadley Robinson as Jeanie Buss).

The performances consistently support their own weight, but an extra pinch of style from executive producer and director Adam McKay and cinematographers Todd Banhazl and Mihai Malaimare Jr. helped bring things off the screen, specifically on two fronts:

  • Simulating the grainy feel of old-school Kodak film by shooting alternate angles on 35mm film and underexposing the negatives
  • Relentlessly faithful recreations of notable events, including Buss and the Lakers’ teeth-gnashingly awkward press conference to announce the team’s ill-defined succession plan for ousted coach Paul Westhead (Jason Segel):

And let’s not forget the treatment of on-court action. There are several excellent examples to choose from, including Magic’s deer-in-the-headlights mismanagement of the game clock in the closing moments of Game 2 of the ’84 Finals, but let’s stick with a happier one — Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Solomon Hughes) breaking the NBA’s all-time scoring record:

IAN STONEBROOK: The show’s aesthetic authenticity and hoop choreography were unmatched. So often, period pieces mail it in in regard to the wardrobe department, leaving the cast looking silly and the story losing credibility.

From the shoes on each player to the off-court attire, every look and interior design detail was on point with no corners cut. Emma Potter and her team deserve an immense amount of credit for that and the show should be used as an example for all archival-inspired content to follow.
On the court, Idan Ravin, as I understand, was responsible for making the basketball look realistic — notoriously difficult to accomplish on film — and succeeded. Sure, there are some camera angles that make over-exaggerated Magic passes seem extra (watch the highlights, they were!) but it’s all enough to capture the casual fan and excite the hoop diehard. 

Additionally, the casting was spectacular given at the top level. Jerry, Jeanie, Magic, and Kareem couldn’t have been better. Adrien Brody was completely compelling as Pat Riley and Jason Segel played an increasingly unlikeable character for the first time I can recall and killed it.

Where Did the Show Go Wrong?

IS: Timing is everything and it seems to have doomed Winning Time. Between the dog days of summer and the start of Sunday Night Football, it proved less than a priority for most watchers. This was doubled by the striking writers and actors and the inevitable budget cuts that followed, nixing the chances of any promotional momentum to drive awareness for the show. 

SD: Incumbent Lakers governor Jeanie Buss became a notable advocate for much of what the show portrayed, including Reilly’s portrayal of her libertine father. Spencer Haywood, portrayed in Season 1 by Wood Harris, largely concurred. The list of critics and detractors on this front, however, grew longer by comparison.

We won’t say a single ill word of Jason Clarke, whose characterization of Hall of Famer, former coach, and front office executive Jerry West was a whole lot of explosive fun — but West himself was not happy, going as far as tapping his lawyers to send a strongly-worded letter to Adam McKay and several HBO executives demanding an apology for what they considered “a deliberately false characterization that has caused great distress to Jerry and his family” in the spring of 2022.

Magic Johnson noted in measured fashion that he did not plan to watch the show. Meanwhile, Abdul-Jabbar wrote on his Substack that not only was Winning Time not overly committed to telling the truth, but that it was downright boring.

But ultimately, two interconnected forces above all others doomed the show: struggling ratings for Season 2 that lagged well behind the first and the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes, both of which precluded a legitimate promotional push for the show. Without getting Reilly, Isaiah, Brody, and Co. onto the talk show circuit, how surprised can we be that the final season’s first two episodes didn’t reach 200,000 viewers, the low point for a series that ended Season 1 up over 500,000 an episode?

Don’t discount that the 2022 NBA Playoffs began as the first season aired, either, with no such synergy the second time around.

John C. Reilly as Jerry Buss and Hadley Robinson as Jeanie Buss in the Winning Time series finale (Warrick Page/HBO)

How Will Winning Time be Remembered?

SD: I will remember Winning Time as, at its best, a fun, eminently watchable, always nice-to-look-at show that attempted to go places we simply weren’t used to seeing on television. At the same time, I often had the same thought I used to have when watching Game of Thrones: With such a massive budget behind this thing, shouldn’t it be better? It’s a good show that should have been great.

The rushed pacing in Season 2 didn’t help. Covering four years in seven episodes was going to be a seriously tough task, particularly after Season 1 had 10 episodes to get through the 1979-80 campaign.

We also can’t avoid that this series ended the friendship between McKay and longtime producing partner Will Ferrell, the latter of whom was reportedly dead-set on playing Buss only to see another friend and longtime collaborator of his get the gig.

With no disrespect whatsoever to the comedy legend, McKay and HBO made the correct choice in casting Reilly as Dr. Buss, but I sure wish we could all get this taste out of our mouths.

Warrick Davis/HBO

IS: A lot of our beloved TV shows have been cancelled and vaulted before they could tell the whole story they set out to tell. What that means for Winning Time is tough to assess because it won’t live in Family Guy DVD territory, but it’s technically a free agent for any network to pick up if that serious budget isn’t a dealbreaker.

Those who watched it, loved it. Sadly, the show is also the subject of significant fallout given the Will Ferrell-Adam McKay drama and the fury the show ignited amongst many of the personalities it portrayed. While I love the show as a fan, it’s tough to imagine being one of the historical figures featured in it — especially those of a certain age — knowing that it could influence a notable piece of the narrative scrapbook for my great-grandchildren and their peers to pick from.

I hope it’s a minor setback for a major comeback because this show was so fun to watch and so well done. There’s a lot to be explored about the core characters through the beginning of the 1990s, and I was hoping this would be the starting point for more scripted sports series based on real teams to continue.

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