Overwhelmed by its demented vintage aesthetic, the series struggles to develop a story to match, as twirling as the Los Angeles of the time.
It’s not quite the ultimate basketball series we were hoping for. Winning Time yet had an ideal starting five: Adam McKay (Succession, Cosmic Denial…) as conductor, Jerry Buss as captain, Pat Riley as lieutenant, and Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to ensure the show. Enough to make any series fan in love with the orange ball salivate… even a fan of the Celtics!
The story takes us back to 1979, at a time when the NBA was dying, unable to fill theaters. Dominated by Boston, the league is looking for a second wind that Jerry Buss intends to bring to it, by creating a new dynasty of winners in Los Angeles. To support the aging star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the new owner of the franchise sets his sights on the very promising Magic Johnson, a huge leader with rare talent from Michigan. Son of a large family, without money and very religious, the kid is about to take the plunge into the glamorous life of the Californian team…
To take us back in time, Winning Time is based on an absolutely sumptuous vintage aesthetic. From the grain of the picture to the faded colors, it feels like watching an old VHS. Obviously, it’s done on purpose and it allows the series to immediately display a very assumed retro fun tone, like a funny old-fashioned but deliciously enveloping nostalgia.
Only problem, the screenwriter Max Borenstein (to whom we owe the latest films Godzilla and Kong) is visibly a little overwhelmed by this hyper flashy shape, which takes precedence over the substance. Completely captivated by its own style, the series seems to no longer really know what makes its subject matter so enthralling. She insists on the smallest detail. Skate to create a truly historical (or at least epic) narrative. And from small twist to minor reversal, these Lakers have a hard time grabbing the ball on the leap.
Sure, that’s cool. Any basketball fan will find it exciting to see Magic Johnson cross paths with the great Kareem. To see Jerry West freaking out. To understand where Pat Riley comes from. To hear Red Auerbach, the mythical boss of the Celtics, making fun of his rival losers on the West Coast. But the super flashy form of Winning Timeass, raw and and surprisingly outrageous, ends up perplexing.
Moreover, it would certainly collapse on itself without the charisma of John C. Reilly, the phenomenal Jerry Buss, who, over small asides with the public, facing the camera, allows the series to find real stakes. To explain to the public how important this era is to tell, because it marked a turning point in the history of the game. That this Lakers dynasty had an underestimated socio-economic impact on the years that will follow. It remains to be seen whether this will really interest those who do not know that little Jeanie Buss is today the boss of the franchise…
Winning Time can be seen in France on OCS from Monday, March 7.