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‘Winning Time’ distracts from its irresistible, feel-good story with Adam McKay’s exhausting style

From left, John C. Reilly as Jerry Buss, Quincy Isaiah as Magic Johnson and Jason Clarke as Jerry West in “Winning Time.” (Warrick Page/HBO)

“Winning Time,” the new HBO basketball drama about the Los Angeles Lakers’ halcyon days in the ‘80s, is the kind of series that wears its research on its sleeve. Despite its long roster of marquee names — with John C. Reilly, Sally Field, Jason Clarke, Jason Segel, Adrien Brody, Gaby Hoffmann and winsome newcomer Quincy Isaiah as a sampling of the cast — the real star of the show is the facts.

Sometimes, the whirlwind of details we’re thrust into helps convey a sense of the milieu — in this case, that of a sport revitalized by a racially charged rivalry between two emerging superstars. Just as often, our attentions are diverted to trivia and gratuitous digressions: dropping the names of player Spencer Haywood’s wife (Iman) and her eventual husband (David Bowie); pointing to a baby in the stands that’s supposed to be future Lakers luminary Kobe Bryant; rubbing elbows at a party with future L.A. Clippers owner Donald Sterling, who’d later be banned from the NBA for life.

A decade ago, we’d probably most associate this kind of show-your-work approach with the math teacher who taught us long division. Today, it’s filmmaker and TV producer Adam McKay, who helped establish “Winning Time’s” frenetic, motor-mouthed, subtlety-allergic style as the pilot director. McKay helmed the first episode of “Succession” — another HBO drama he’s an executive producer on — where its jittery, roving handheld camera matches the on-edge-ness of so many of the characters; it’s the perspective of a watchful squirrel looking around to see when to scurry away. Similarly, the direction here captures the restless pace of basketball and the speed and flash — the sexiness, as new Lakers owner Jerry Buss (Reilly) puts it in an early scene — that’s about to take over the then-unpopular sport, with new recruit Earvin “Magic” Johnson (Isaiah) rekindling the Lakers’ storied feud with the Boston Celtics.

“Winning Time” opens in 1991, the year the real-life Johnson retired after testing positive for HIV and closed that chapter of the Lakers. But much of the 10-part debut season takes place in 1979, as Buss — a real estate mogul with a hedonistic streak as extravagant as the Playboy Mansion — overleverages himself to become the latest and least popular team owner in the NBA. In some ways, Buss and his 19-year-old draftee are peas in a pod: men from modest backgrounds who find themselves transfixed by, then feel right at home amid, the glitz and sleaze of ’70s L.A. Despite their talent, ambition and dedication, both give off a false air of nonseriousness. And in Magic’s case, the bald racism of basketball culture means constantly being overlooked in favor of the other celebrity rookie: the Celtics’ Great White Hope, Larry Bird (Sean Patrick Small).

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There was nothing fated about the Lakers’ glory days in the ‘80s. Based on Jeff Pearlman’s book “Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s,” “Winning Time” delights in the stranger-than-fiction turn of events that led to the team’s domination of the league. Foremost among them is the succession crisis set off when the Lakers’ head coach, Jerry West (Clarke), a depressive neurotic, quits three weeks before training is to begin for the new season. By the end of Episode 8 — the last installment screened for critics — the Lakers will go through three coaches and court two more.

The coaching catastrophes offer a compelling throughline to the otherwise limpingly paced season, cohering the massive ensemble and complementing the show’s know-it-all earnestness with its can-you-believe-this raconteurism. That love of minutiae is paralleled in creators Max Borenstein and Jim Hecht’s clear adoration of male idiosyncrasy. In contrast to virtually the rest of society, sports is an arena where masculine hyper-emotionality is encouraged, even cultivated.

No wonder, then, that the Lakers are a bundle of fascinating eccentrics. In this telling, the extroverted Magic was born to be a celebrity, charming everyone he meets and dependent from an early age on external approval, first from his Seventh-day Adventist mother (LisaGay Hamilton), then from millions of strangers. His happy-go-lucky demeanor unnerves Jerry West, whose ostentatious misery is so abject it inches back up toward dark humor. Just as grave is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (an excellent Solomon Hughes), a surly and devout intellectual all too aware of the sport’s racial hierarchies and existentially skeptical of the material comforts he’s been afforded from being really good at putting a ball through a hoop. The fifth episode, dedicated to his backstory, is one of the season’s most distinctive and engaging.

Segel, Brody and Tracy Letts play the trio of coaches the Lakers run through, each afraid to be content in his own way, lest it cost them their drive. (“Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown,” Segel’s character might say, in one of his spontaneous recitations of Shakespeare.)

But no character is as finely carved as Jerry Buss, a charismatic womanizer whose appreciation of female bodies actually extends to their brains. He admires his single mother (Field), who never finished high school but helped him become a millionaire through her creative accounting.

Watching Buss’s absolute helplessness when it comes to sexual temptation, his newest executive, the severe but brilliant Claire (Hoffmann), and his college-age daughter, Jeanie (​​Hadley Robinson), concoct somewhat unsavory side businesses for the cash-strapped tycoon that make them both proud and queasy. Buss is the kind of man who always makes a woman feel needed, but never fully comfortable acceding to his wants. All these complications do underscore, though, the wanness of Magic’s central storyline, about his on-again-off-again relationship with his girlfriend Cookie (Tamera Tomakili) — a conspicuously over-familiar plot on a show that takes swing after swing on the novelty of its characters.

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But McKay had to gild the lily. “Winning Time” is full of asides to the camera, mostly but not exclusively from Buss. Grainy cinematography meant to evoke the Carter years comes and goes irregularly, as do unnecessary montages, seconds-long flashbacks, screens within screens, and the briefest glimpses of Richard Pryor, Jack Nicholson and, ugh, Bill Cosby. Subtext is literally made text as a description of Larry Bird as a “hard-working, disciplined, all-American boy” is followed by the screen wallpapered with the word “White” and a corresponding summary of Magic Johnson as a “showstopping, naturally gifted physical specimen” with the word “Black.” We’ll do the thinking for you, the show seems to say. We don’t trust you to do it yourself.

Some viewers, like a friend of mine who was enamored with the pilot, will find the formal inventiveness cheekily endearing and the no-holds-barred indictment of the league’s racism (and homophobia) refreshingly straightforward. That’s certainly an understandable point of view; the tack is gaudy and obvious, like the era it’s depicting. (If you need any more convincing, wait until the episode about the Laker Girls.) But for my tastes, McKay has entered, with “Winning Time,” an Aaron Sorkin-esque level of directorial obtrusiveness, where a filmmaker’s tics and indulgences keep calling attention to themselves, distracting from the narrative at hand rather than amplifying it. If only one of the greatest and most twist-filled turnarounds in NBA history, featuring three of basketball’s biggest names and a cultural sea change in the popularity of the sport itself, were exciting enough a story to tell.

Winning Time (one hour) airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on HBO.

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