The following contains spoilers for Winning Time S1E4, “Who the F**k is Jack McKinney?” (directed by Damian Marcano and written by Max Borenstein & Rodney Barnes & Jim Hecht)
“Who the F**k is Jack McKinney?” might well be the most entertaining episode of Winning Time so far. It’s a dynamic and eventful hour that continues to build out how the Lakers became one of the top-tier basketball teams, and how Jerry and his team behind the scenes transformed the sport into a spectacle.
The opening scene of “Who the F**k is Jack McKinney?” punctuates how Jerry’s lifestyle affected Jeanie’s development, and it’s troubling. Ex-wife JoAnn is bringing the kids out to dinner, and happens to run into Jerry and his latest fling at the restaurant. As Jerry starts getting intimate with his lady, they’re startled to find a young Jeanie standing still, watching them. Later in the episode, Jeanie comes across her dad’s scrapbook of Polaroid nudes of women, eventually leading to a pitch to make basketball sexy. That eventual moment is a terrific final scene to the episode, but it carries with it more than a bit of discomfort in how Jeanie and her father interact.
The introduction of assistant coach Pete Westhead continues to build out the carousel of “hey it’s that guy” actors showing up on Winning Time, which is always a delight. I’m curious to see what will be done with Westhead in the coming episodes. His introduction is him taking the job over the phone and abandoning his professor job mid-ribbing by his boss, gathering just three items from his cluttered office and leaving (we’re told in the next scene that he was a coach, but the alumni turned on him after a “bad season”). Jason Segel brings the same sort of doofy oddball energy he’s usually known for and it’s good to see him again.
In general, the show is really starting to find its groove with its characters. I’m particularly enjoying the continued emasculation of Jerry West, a titan of bluster in the first episode who’s becoming more and more timid and out of his element. Conversely, poor Pat Riley can’t seem to catch a break, and the doe-eyed Adrien Brody is something I can’t get enough of. I’m hoping that Riley gets his redemption arc soon, and I need a gif of that shot of Riley rapidly batting his eyebrows in my life.
Jerry Buss is in need of some redemption of his own, as his money problems have led his mother to take the apparent nuclear option of him signing the team over to his ex-wife in order to dodge the impending loan collection. It’s been Jerry’s go-to solution to throw money at everything to solve it—even from the beginning, he had to “move some stuff around” in order to buy the Lakers (translation: beg the ex-wife for money), but as his mother points out, he’s broke. He’s outwardly optimistic, but privately coming apart at the seams.
I point this out often, but I have little to no knowledge about the real-life events surrounding the Lakers, and I am intentionally avoiding looking into more, so I’m watching this more or less as a drama where I have no idea what’s going to happen next.
The real star of Winning Time S1E4 is freshly-hired head coach McKinney, who has spent two decades developing a new basketball strategy in between bouts of long distance running to clear his head. The dynamic and exciting visual direction to how McKinney envisions his new idea for basketball is is one of the best parts of this episode. From the ideas literally exploding off of the page as he imagines it, to the way documentary footage intertwines with his metaphorical accounts of how he wants the players to flow, it’s impossible not to get swept up in the excitement of McKinney’s vision for the future. This is clearly something that’s been consuming him, and McKinney’s passion and intensity are infectious. Watching McKinney break down the numbers of the existing basketball status quo and how he seeks to turn the Lakers into a machine—”go from classical to jazz”—is a delight.
My other favorite part of this episode is Magic waxing poetic about how he likes to “share the love” on the court, which launches into a beautifully-crafted old-school animated sequence that feels ripped straight from a VHS off the Blockbuster shelf. Winning Time’s winning personality continues to solidify and by now has solidly debunked my original concerns that it would lose that sparkling sense of style that Adam McKay brought to the pilot.
But man, how much of a jerk is Kareem? He demands that rookie Magic bring him, by 6 a.m. every morning, the paper arranged in a specific order and a glass of orange juice, the latter of which he will inspect and then wordlessly refuse if it’s not perfect. Magic, ever eager to please, takes to cracking this nut with passion, desperate for Kareem to accept his glass of orange juice.
The pieces are starting to come together for the Lakers dynasty: McKinney is reinventing the wheel for a successful and dynamic game that bucks the trend of predictability that the rest of the league adheres to, and Jeanie and her team are glamorizing the experience for the audience to sell a show that everyone will want to escape to. The money moment for “Who the F**k is Jack McKinney?” comes in the final frame of the episode, as Jeanie and her crew wait for Buss to respond to their pitch for cheerleaders and dancers. Jerry simply spreads his arms and proclaims: “It’s showtime!”
It’s impossible not to be excited.