Winning Time Episode 8: “California Dreaming”

Quincy Isaiah as Magic Johnson in ‘Winning Time.”

Quincy Isaiah as Magic Johnson in ‘Winning Time.”
Image: HBO

Since the poems, short stories, and writings of Henry Dumas, a specter has risen out of the outer fringes of American arts and letters — Afro-surrealism. A hallmark of this genre is a self-awareness by the reader, author, and fictional characters that the world they inhabit is off-kilter. The term has roots in surrealism, defined as humor based in detours of logic. Winning Time blurs fact and fiction by existing on the razors edge between the two, and recently to controversy. As a show about one of greatest, and mostly Black teams in NBA history, Winning Time had the chance to join the canon of works about the complexities of Black identity, recently made mainstream by shows like Underground Railroad, Atlanta, the visual work of Kara Walker, and the films of Jordan Peele. There are shadows of surrealism in the newest HBO series — characters speak directly to the audience, animated sequences break out once an episode, and over-the-top graphics punctuate almost every scene. While the show is clearly on a surrealist kick stylistically, it’s missing the Afrocentric perspective.


Winning Time takes its sharpest turns into left field with white characters behind the wheel. In its first season, it’s been chiefly John C. Reilly’s Jerry Buss who has broken the most fourth walls, engaging us, the audience, in conversation. This is not to say Buss doesn’t have something to say. His make-or-break gamble put the Lakers on the path towards their epoch. But we’ve been down this path before. There’s no need to fill a woke quota by centering the show around fictionalized marginalized characters. We get enough of that from corporate commercials for Adidas and Gillette.

The shame behind this wasted opportunity is the show could have allowed Magic and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to be the avatars for the show’s venture into surrealism. It would have been a more exciting narrative to see and hear what they were thinking, as the ones playing the game on the court while navigating the political game off the court. But unfortunately, these moments are few and far between. The world these Black men inhabit borders on the absurd. Magic, specifically, constantly feels out of place and forced to be at odds by the league and commissioner with other Black stars and especially his white rookie counterpart, Larry Bird. Magic’s working-class roots are constantly used as a source of différance. The NBA is a white man’s game, and the Lakers players are unwilling chess pieces. Yet they have to navigate the ins and outs of their lives as if it all means something, a hallmark of surrealism. But no matter how absurd situational moments of Winning Time might be, the very real racism, and trappings of fame lurk around every corner for its Black characters.

In the introduction to episode 8, “California Dreaming,” Buss is given the omnipresent ability to walk through frozen time, narrating a parable on not giving up through the story of Englishman Roger Bannister breaking the world record for running the mile. Buss does this while walking through Staples Stadium, where players and fans are frozen in time. The story of Banister’s history-making accomplishment is a quaint tale for these plucky Lakers looking to make history. So why not let Magic tell it? As the series main star, Reilly has been given top billing and is this story’s Shakespearian figure, but perhaps that was a creative mistake. With all the controversy around the show’s accuracy around its core cast, it would have been a more exciting risk to let Magic tell this tale from his point of view.

Think of the perspective — a poor, working-class African American plucked from his modest Michigan upbringing to be the missing piece of a Los Angeles fairytale. It would have recentered the show around the perspective of Magic’s POV, unforced and without the neo-liberal virtue-signaling. The show’s done a great job at painting each character in the grayscale, showing the qualities that made them heroes to the NBA and villains to their own happiness. Yet, it could have been so much more. That’s not to say Reilly isn’t engrossing as Buss. His three-pronged relationship this episode with his disappointed daughter, dying mother, and her nurse is a hallmark of the series. A late night car scene between Reilly and his mother’s nurse (Natalia Cordova-Buckley) toes the line between tender and lecherous, exposing just how deep his Oedipus complex goes. After soaking her shirt with his tearful breakdown over his mother’s impending death, he unbuttons the nurse’s top to suckle at her teat.

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We’re given brief moments of Magic taking the narrative reins, such as when he bitches to the camera about not receiving support from his teammates as an All-Star. But they are brief and not nearly the majesty or length of Buss’ soliloquies. Magic is too interesting a person, both the real version and this simulation, to be regulated to the sidelines. And this is Winning Time’s biggest error, bestowing its most personal and introspective moments to just Buss, while spreading out the crumbs to the rest of the expanded cast. To be fair, how many of us can relate to the millionaire shenanigans of playboy Buss? It’s Magic’s tragic arc, grounded in everyday good vs. evil, that feels more familiar.

At the end of the day, isn’t the NBA a star driven league anyways?

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