Winning Time Reviews Are In, Here's What Critics Are Saying About HBO's Los Angeles Lakers Series

Quincy Isaiah as Magic Johnson in Winning Time.
(Image credit: HBO)

The latest project from Anchorman and Don't Look Up filmmaker Adam McKay has arrived with the HBO series Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty. Based on Jeff Pearlman's book Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley, and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s, Winning Time tells the story of the NBA team’s domination of sports and pop culture throughout the '80s. Critics got to see eight of the first season's ten episodes before their release, and while we know Lakers legend Magic Johnson won’t be checking this one out, hopefully these reviews can help you decide if this groovy series is one you want to dive into.

Leading the cast is John C. Reilly as legendary team owner Jerry Buss, and he’s accompanied by a long list of talented players, including Quincy Isaiah as Earvin “Magic” Johnson, Jason Clarke as former Lakers star and general manager Jerry West, Adrien Brody as coach Pat Riley, Solomon Hughes as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and many more. With so much talent both behind and in front of the camera, let’s see how Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty fared with critics.

Jack Hamilton of Slate says that as a fan of Adam McKay’s and basketball, he thinks Winning Time is just okay, and that it feels like a missed opportunity, especially with good performances by a handful of the actors, including Quincy Isaiah as Magic Johnson. Hamilton says there isn’t much basketball to be witnessed, and the HBO series is flashy without the substance to back it up:

Winning Time is a watchable show that doesn’t seem to have any other compelling reason to exist other than to be watched. Its tone is broadly comedic, but it’s not actually very funny; it’s a historical period piece that doesn’t seem that interested in history, or at least accuracy; it’s a show about basketball that’s really a show about America, or capitalism, or guys who fuck, or something. It’s a show about one of the most interesting subjects I can imagine that seems to fundamentally misunderstand what actually makes that subject interesting.

Daniel D’Addario of Variety echoes the above sentiment, saying Winning Time is trying to convince viewers it’s fun, but forgets its fundamentals. He says even the Showtime Lakers wouldn’t have held fans’ attention if they didn’t have the talent to back up everything else. D’Addario also compliments Quincy Isaiah on his portrayal of No. 32, saying:

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.

More positive was Dave Nemetz of TVLine, who calls the series a “wild, energetic slam dunk,” while giving it a grade of B+. Adam McKay and company probably bit off more than they can chew by featuring too many characters, this critic says, but the show’s dynamic style and the intriguing personalities make up for its misgivings.

Winning Time feels like a freewheeling party from that era: breezily paced, with lots of laughs and characters breaking the fourth wall to directly address the camera. (Adam McKay is an executive producer and directs the pilot, and the show’s style recalls his financial crisis explainer The Big Short.) The tone is decidedly old-fashioned, too, with gratuitous nudity and off-color humor that’s straight from the swinging ’70s. The visuals follow suit, with grainy 16-millimeter footage spliced into scenes alongside crisp HD images to create a vintage vibe. Plus, the funk soundtrack practically struts, with dramatic scenes scored by a moody synthesizer.

Bill Goodykoontz of USA TODAY rates Winning Time 3.5 stars out of 4, saying that just like the team it’s based on, the HBO show is flashy, fast-paced, and fun to watch, and viewers don’t have to be up on basketball knowledge to enjoy it.

Purists may complain about the recreated basketball, but that misses the point. What’s important here is the life the series portrays, the go-go-go 1980s NBA scene the Lakers helped usher in. It was pizazz with a point. Given what went on in the locker room and off the court it’s a miracle they ever won a game, but what ‘Winning Time’ does exceptionally well is capture the feel, the excitement, the vibe of those Lakers teams.

Josh Sorokach of Decider also points out that viewers don’t have to be basketball fans to enjoy Winning Time’s “sharp writing and dazzling performances,” but the series should be appointment viewing for NBA fans.

Winning Time isn’t the type of show you can watch passively. Its breakneck pace and flashy mix of genre-bending elements combine to craft a series that’s difficult to look away from and impossible to ignore. HBO’s latest Sunday night offering isn’t so much of a layup as it is a slam dunk, delivering a fun, glitzy origin story of an iconic NBA dynasty.

The critics seem to agree that newcomer Quincy Isaiah was the right choice to portray Lakers legend Magic Johnson, but it’s somewhat of a mixed bag as to how well the rest of the series comes together. Anybody looking to see Last Dance-levels of court-centered drama may be disappointed, but those hoping to see sports debauchery that doesn't happen much these days may be in for a treat.

If you want to give it a shot, Winning Time premieres on Sunday, March 6, at 9 p.m. ET on HBO. Be sure to check out our 2022 TV Schedule to see when new and returning shows are premiering.

Heidi Venable
Content Producer

Mom of two and hard-core '90s kid. Unprovoked, will quote Friends in any situation. Thrives on New Orleans Saints football, The West Wing and taco trucks.