Sunday, March 6, 2022

REVIEW: 'Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty' - Jerry Buss and Magic Johnson Join the Lakers in 'The Swan'

HBO's Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty - Episode 1.01 "The Swan"

1979. Businessman Jerry Buss stakes his fortune on the purchase of the NBA's lackluster Los Angeles Lakers. Meanwhile, the team's head coach, Jerry West, bristles at the prospect of drafting college phenom Earvin Johnson - who must decide if he's ready to live up to the mantle of his nickname: Magic.

"The Swan" was directed by Adam McKay with story by Max Borenstein & Jim Hecht and teleplay by Max Borenstein

No show loves its narrative and stylistic excesses as much as this one does. It's astonishing just how annoying those flourishes get too. The creative team obviously wants the series to have as much flash and style as the Showtime era of the Los Angeles Lakers did. But it immediately comes across as the show trying to convince the audience to play attention instead of trusting the actual story. So many characters break the fourth wall in the opening minutes. It's a tool utilized across the ensemble. Sometimes it's for nothing more than a joke. Dr. Jerry Buss is the main narrator. The story isn't all about him. It's about the business and the people who get consumed by his vision for professional basketball. All of it is detailed in his direct-to-camera addresses. That narrative structure is used partly to showcase the personalities of the people involved and the skills they promise to deliver. It's also a crutch to externalize everything that is happening internally. It's a convenient way to give expositional details to the audience. A lot of information is flying out for the viewer to absorb. It can be overwhelming to anyone not aware of the history at play. The show is trying its best to welcome in those newcomers. As a result, the entire ensemble is each given one note to play. Jerry West can only be extremely volatile. It's informed by him constantly losing championships despite doing his personal best. The women can only be the sexual objects of desire. Each react accordingly as they figure out how to best navigate the powerful men around them. Earvin Johnson and Jerry Buss are those destined to shake up the sport. And so, the premiere is all about them cementing their places on the team. Buss has to scramble together the money to take over as owner. Meanwhile, Johnson has to be convinced that Los Angeles is the best place for him even though many doubt his abilities due to his height and his constant need to perform for the crowd. Everything comes together despite those frustrations. It's very much the biographical telling of the story. Moments are provided here and there that live in the present for these characters and the anxiety they must have felt. That is most acutely seen with Johnson after losing to Norm Nixon. That makes him reconsider his decision to go pro now. He may be better off spending another year in college. That decision weighs on him as well as his entire family. They love and support him back in Lansing, Michigan. He is destined for more. He is told that constantly. He's not exactly paid his worth. But plenty of people place their hopes and dreams on him. The structure of the series even states a great career ahead for him. It's all inevitable.

The series opens at the end of the Showtime era. That first scene depicts Magic Johnson being diagnosed with HIV. That was such a colossal moment. It made the public aware for the first time that anyone could get this disease. It wasn't just a plague killing off the gay community. It marked the end of one era in Johnson's life. It produced a fruitful next chapter that was just as meaningful. That history is important. It must be acknowledged. Of course, this telling of events requires the audience to be aware of that history. It's not spelled out. In that moment, the storytelling accesses aren't applied. It's meant to be more solemn and serious. That's what the magnitude of the moment requires. Then, the opening credits play and Jerry Buss is explaining how similar basketball is to sex. These characters are crude and upfront about everything. It's exhilarating to a certain extent. When the show can relax into the situation and not be bombastic, then it has the potential to be quite entertaining. It's detailing a huge transformation for what has become one of the most popular sports. The actions these people take contribute to that. However, the show never trusts the audience to simply get that significance. It wants everything to be so serious with how extravagant this all should be. The style is meant to captivate. However, the narrative is familiar terrain for anyone who has watched television over the decades. It's an examination of hyper-masculinity. It explores the pressures society places on young men required to achieve incredible goals and the sexual vivaciousness that must accompany it. It has no room for subtlety whatsoever. Nor can the spotlight be adequately shared. Some people are stars while others are relegated to the background. This team is more than Buss and Johnson. They are the focus here. That will more than likely change. That's the benefit of producing this project for television. It allows that expansive view to come into focus. The audience needs to be all in on the excesses displayed. That's a lot. It should immediately turn off viewers who don't think it's necessary to note the racial disparity that plagues the league and those who watch the games. It's a huge part of this story. It's better when Magic and his father are talking about what they need to do to survive in this world. Magic believes he has it all figured out until he comes crushing down to reality based on the expectations set for him in Los Angeles. That's much more satisfying than see the words "Black" and "White" broadcast across the screen to ensure no one misses the dynamics at work. Again, it comes across as not trusting the audience to see these themes and their relevance. That clashes with the intellect necessary to get the history of the players the show has little time to explore fully. And so, it's truly one of the most hit-or-miss premieres out there. It varies from moment to moment which seems improbable of creating a consistent season. It's showmanship above all else even in a medium that has proven capable of so many innovative storytelling depictions over the years. Some have even come from the same creative team behind Winning Time.