‘Winning Time’ Season 2 Review: HBO Lakers Show Is Still Dazzling

‘Winning Time’ Season 2 Review: HBO Lakers Show Is Still Dazzling

HBO’s “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty” is back for Season 2, and it’s still electric and a damn good time. The first season, mostly spanning the 1979-1980 NBA calendar, unpacked the origins of Los Angeles Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss (a crass but delightful John C. Reilly) and exhaustively detailed the origins of the dynasty that he would build behind teen megastar Earvin “Magic” Johnson (Quincy Isaiah). A more rapidly paced second season addresses the following years, leading up to the highly-anticipated 1984 NBA Finals that positioned the Lakers against long-time rivals the Boston Celtics, led by Larry Bird (Sean Patrick Small).

Season 2 opens with the first game of that landmark championship series. It’s May 27, 1984, and a full-fledged mob scene is under way. Magic, the Lakers and their Armani-clad coach, Pat Riley (an exquisite Adrian Brody) — having just won Game 1 — race off the basketball court, through the back halls of the Boston Garden and onto their team bus. Enraged Celtics fans, hurling expletives and objects, are right on their heels. Helmed by director Salli Richardson-Whitfield, “Winning Time” wastes no time returning once again with its now-signature showy title cards, fourth wall breaks, sensational soundtrack and sharp shifts from digital to aged-35 mm film.

Ultimately, this chapter is less about the Lakers’ dynasty and more focused on the men who are on the verge of shattering it. And with this sophomore season, it becomes more clear why the real-life figures depicted in the show are less than pleased with how they’re portrayed.

In just seven episodes that twist quickly from comedy to drama, Season 2 barrels through the four years between Buss’ and Magic’s first championship in the summer of 1980 to their crushing defeat against the Celtics in Game 7 on June 14, 1984. Early on, Magic is as charismatic as he is immature. His unbridled sexual escapes have brought his first child into this world, which has wearied his long-time love Cookie (Tamera Tomakili) and his devoted parents (Rob Morgan and LisaGay Hamilton). A busted knee at the beginning of the 1981 season sidelines Magic for over 40 games, leaving sponsors and the Lakers organization feeling queasy about the future.

While the “Winning Time” ensemble is dynamic, Isaiah’s Magic, a mixture of dimples, charm, and youthful idiocy, stands in the spotlight. Magic hasn’t learned much after his rookie year in the NBA. With an over-inflated ego and a people-pleasing spirit, he’s a contrast to the Lakers’ stoic captain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (Solomon Hughes). Not only are they 13 years apart in age, but the men are a world away from each other in maturity. It’s a theme continually illustrated on and off the court, especially after Magic returns from his injury.

While the magnetic point guard is busy being fixated on himself and extracting emotional labor from Cookie, Buss is attempting to build a family outside The Forum. However, an obsession with a past love, Honey (Ari Graynor), has alienated him from his ambitious daughter, Jeanie (Hadley Robinson). Still, Buss’ scaled-back storyline makes room for Brody’s legendary turn as the aggressive but brilliant Pat Riley and his slicked-back hair. Riley’s dynamism is a direct distinction to Jason Segel’s weasel-like Paul Westhead, whose basketball “system” and inability to bond with Magic gets him booted out of LA.

While the basketball sequences still frame the series, it’s the specific life moments of the men within it that makes “Winning Time” continuously intriguing. Moments like Magic’s then-unprecedented $25 million contract, Buss’ new marriage and even Kareem’s newfound connection with his fans are enthralling even for viewers who couldn’t pretend to care about the NBA and its history.

A shorter season and trimmed-down episode runtimes also mean less screen time for some characters. Namely, there’s less to be seen this season of both Jeanie and The Forum vice president Claire Rothman (Gaby Hoffmann), whose constant work and indulgence of Buss’ whims help keep the Lakers franchise afloat when it titters toward bankruptcy. Unfortunately, these women and the continual sexism they encounter are nearly forgotten. Only during the finale, when it’s once again time to clean up Buss’ mess, does the camera pan back to them. 

Still, there is much to delight in with this heavily-detailed series. More of Larry Bird’s backstory, which begins in the nowhere town of French Lick, Indiana, is showcased. We also see firsthand how his icy façade and disdain for the public stand in direct contrast to Magic’s people power. Moreover, watching Riley and Westhead, and later Magic and Westhead, go round for round in heated arguments – though overly dramatized as the series suggests — makes for a delicious spectacle.

A highly-stylized display of egos, testosterone and basketball, “Winning Time” Season 2 is a dizzying ride that pays homage to an era and a franchise that helped shape the world of professional basketball as we know it today. Hilarious, exasperating, and even heartbreaking, the magic has indeed returned.

Season 2 of “Winning Time” premieres Sunday, Aug. 6 on HBO and Max, with new episodes airing weekly on Sundays. Stream it online here.