John C. Reilly first shows up in “Winning Time” post-coitally, musing about the ways in which his favorite activity has pleasures not unlike his second-favorite. “God damn,” he muses to his sleeping mistress, his gaze slightly tangent to the camera’s gaze. “Basketball. I mean, look at it. It’s like great sex: It’s moving, it’s rhythmic, it’s up close and personal.” He goes on to celebrate the sport as the camera pulls in, concluding, “If there’s two things that make me believe in God, it’s sex and basketball.”
The camera pulls back, to show us that he’s bored his mistress to sleep: We get a lengthy look at her nude body, roiling on the unsteady surface of a waterbed. Reilly gives up on her, and then looks into the camera to tell the audience directly that he plans to buy the Los Angeles Lakers. He continues his monologue about the role he sees for himself as he walks into a room full of barely-dressed young women sleeping on the floor, and a chyron informs us we are at the Playboy Mansion in 1979.
This is “Winning Time,” a series defined by the increasingly wearying style of Adam McKay, an executive producer and the director of the pilot episode. As in his feature films like “The Big Short” and “Vice,” the fourth wall is broken so often that it’s less wall than revolving door; what’s revealed to us is usually either banal (the idea that the act of love is like a sport because both have rhythm) or a data-dump that would be better revealed in another way. The soupcon of prurience poured over the top feels — in a way HBO programming rarely does these days — like an attention-getting stand-in for good ideas.
Give the show this much: It’s trying to summon the spirit of the times it depicts. Reilly plays Jerry Buss, the late real-life businessman who became the majority owner of the Lakers in 1979. Buss’ leadership sparked the “Showtime” era of the team, whose glimmering beginnings, emerging out of mediocrity, “Winning Time” covers. As “Showtime” implies (and the name “Winning Time” doesn’t, really), part of the cascading success of the Lakers in that moment was its Hollywood-ready flair. We see Reilly’s duds, which may strike viewers as an aged-up version of his “Boogie Nights” wardrobe, and his endless indulgence of appetites; we also meet the charismatic and party-loving nascent superstar Magic Johnson (Quincy Isaiah).
For both Buss and Johnson, basketball seems like a vehicle to get one closer to an elevated lifestyle. Reilly effectively renders a creepy salacity when, for instance, checking out the new Laker Girls troupe, though, predictably, the script lets him down. (His declaring “That is female empowerment right there!” after watching their routine pushes our reflexive contempt for Buss a bit far.) And the treatment of Johnson, the phenom from Lansing, as somewhat lost within the temptations of sudden fame can grow as snide and callous as his scenes with his father (Rob Morgan) are sensitively drawn. An animated sequence featuring Johnson delivering exposition about his talents while, among other things, performing oral sex strained my patience for shock value, while a scene in which he’s invited to party by an entertainment-industry figure mockingly identified, in an onscreen chyron, as “Richard Pryor, Positive Influence” deserved a rethink.
Reilly and Isaiah seem closest to the heart of what “Winning Time” wants to be about: The nexus between athletic achievement and amusement. Isaiah gives a warm, charismatic performance that really pops, and Reilly does his best, though the tragedy of his character is that he’s drawn to flash but lacks it himself. The second episode ends with Reilly delivering a speech to the team he’s tearing down to the studs, telling him he’ll do “whatever it takes” to win. For a show so addicted to novelty, it’s a prosaic, plodding moment.
The focus drifts further when other members of the sprawling ensemble cast step into the spotlight. Jason Clarke brings real pathos to his role as former superstar and coach Jerry West, simultaneously sustained and made miserable by the game, in the classic way addiction moves. His story feels as though it might have made for a different, richer show if foregrounded; as it is, West is one among several background players lost in a story that keeps insisting on its own sense of fun. Elsewhere, Adrien Brody, Jason Segel, and Tracy Letts (as, respectively, coaches Pat Riley, Paul Westhead, and Jack McKinney) jockey for position, and for airtime, as Sally Field glides through her scenes as Buss’ mother, and occasional conscience. It’s her storyline that comes the closest to making Buss feel real, and it’s hers, too, that most often verges on a syrupy sentimentality that meshes uneasily with the show’s otherwise acrid tone.
These shifts in sensibility reflect “Winning Time’s” strange ability to turn its stacked cast into a liability, and McKay’s gift for making art that is less than the sum of its parts. In all, “Winning Time” seems so intent on insisting that it’s a fun show that it neglects the fundamentals. It’s a shame, and a sign that key lessons may not have been learned from the series’ subject: The ‘80s Lakers wouldn’t have held fans’ attention if all they had were stunts.
“Winning Time” premieres Sunday, March 6 at 9 p.m. E.T. on HBO.