The Pitfalls of Oven-Ready TV

It’s May 1980 at the Forum in Los Angeles, and the crowd is in a frenzy as the rookie Magic Johnson and the legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar lead the Lakers to their first N.B.A. championship in eight years. This is the setting for the recently completed first season of HBO’s “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty,” which dives into its subject matter with brio. Helmed by the ubiquitous Adam McKay — director of “The Big Short,” “Don’t Look Up” and a parade of successful film comedies — “Winning Time” is an antic chronicle of the Lakers’ highly eventful 1979-80 season, with main characters that include not just Johnson and Abdul-Jabbar but other Lakers titans like the coach Pat Riley and the owner Jerry Buss. Its 10-episode arc is fast and fun, full of on-court magnetism and off-court machismo, and it all actually happened. Sort of.

Many of the people depicted in the show will be familiar to basketball-loving viewers, and that’s part of the appeal: There is a giddy thrill in watching the origin stories of icons still in the public consciousness. And for those who lived through this total blast of a Lakers season, it has to be unbelievably fun reliving it on HBO. But while the acknowledged source material for “Winning Time” is the longtime reporter Jeff Pearlman’s 2014 book “Showtime: Magic, Kareem, Riley and the Los Angeles Lakers Dynasty of the 1980s,” the process of adapting it seems to have been as freewheeling as the team’s run-and-gun offense. This is most apparent in the show’s treatment of the Hall of Fame guard turned coach turned legendary league executive Jerry West.

West’s character on “Winning Time” is a doozy. As played by the Australian actor Jason Clarke, he is a basketball savant with serious rage issues, prone to throwing trophies, breaking golf clubs and drinking to excess. It’s a humorous and not completely unsympathetic portrait. At one point in the show, just after Buss, the new team owner, has given his staff a motivational speech, West makes a grandiose public display of quitting his job as head coach, completely souring the vibe. Eventually West returns to the office without much explanation. Reinstalled as a sort of omniscient consultant on a highly informal basis, he remains a profane, hair-trigger wild card through the rest of the season.

There is a giddy thrill in watching the origin stories of icons still in the public consciousness.

But the West in “Winning Time” doesn’t square with the real Jerry West’s recollections, or with the recollections of many others who were part of the Lakers organization at the time. When West recently asked HBO for a retraction and an apology, several figures from the show, including Abdul-Jabbar (who also objected to his own portrayal) and the former Forum executive Claire Rothman, were quick to take his side. They maintain that West was not a yeller and not erratic in his work and that they never saw him drinking in his office. And while it’s always possible that time and friendship have softened everyone’s memories, it’s notable that West’s more outrageous moments on the show aren’t in Pearlman’s book. In response to West’s criticism, HBO released a statement saying that “Winning Time” is “based on extensive factual research and reliable sourcing,” but that it is “not a documentary.”

You could say the same for a lot of shows these days. From the latest iteration of “The Staircase,” dramatizing a mysterious death in North Carolina that was chronicled in a 2004 documentary, to “WeCrashed,” about the failed start-up WeWork, to “Pam & Tommy,” which reimagines Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee’s marriage and sex tape, contemporary television is awash in semi-fictionalized accounts of recent-ish events. These shows elide the logistical and cost concerns associated with telling a new story from scratch by falling back on a prefabricated narrative. The reason for this boomlet — call it Oven-Ready TV — is the same reason Hollywood churns out superhero movies: It’s seen as a safe form of intellectual property to invest in. “Everything’s expensive to make, and everyone wants to keep their job,” the journalist turned true-crime TV writer Bruce Bennett told me. “If you walk in the door pitching something that’s been done in some other medium or arena, there’s a built-in sense of safety and familiarity for the development and production people who have to pay for the thing.”

The most prominent recent example of this phenomenon is “The Dropout,” Hulu’s arch dramatization of the rise and fall of the Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes, which followed the 2018 book “Bad Blood,” a raft of overlapping podcasts and an HBO documentary by Alex Gibney called “The Inventor.” Watching the dramatization back-to-back with Gibney’s film, it’s striking how much stranger Holmes seems in real life when compared with Amanda Seyfried’s excellent, humanizing portrayal. Where “Winning Time” uses West’s character to amp up the drama, “The Dropout” seems to tone Holmes down for its own purposes — making her more likable, more sympathetic. It’s an understandable narrative decision, but also a curious one, given how easy it is to observe the real Holmes in so many venues and notice the glaring difference. (Another recent example, “Inventing Anna,” made many journalists’ eyes roll for its inauthentic portrayal of the reporting process and life at New York magazine.)

‘If you walk in the door pitching something that’s been done in some other medium or arena, there’s a built-in sense of safety and familiarity.’

But what do any of these shows owe to the people they are depicting, and to the viewer who spends many, many hours with characters they might reasonably expect to be something like the real thing? West, a victim of child poverty and domestic violence, has been painfully candid about the adverse circumstances that shaped him and his desperate bouts with anxiety and depression. He wrote about this in his 2011 autobiography, “West By West: My Charmed, Tormented Life,” and a beautiful Sports Illustrated feature that same year went even further in chronicling West’s struggles with self-loathing and suicidal thoughts.

The producers of “Winning Time” are clearly familiar with this part of West’s story — at one point in the show, he lies catatonic in a dark room for days — which makes the decision to render him a fool even stranger. Perhaps McKay’s taste for clownish characterization explains it. The director made his bones with gloriously absurd fare like “Talladega Nights” and “Anchorman,” but even his more topical films are full of outsize satirical portrayals. As one critic wrote about McKay’s version of Dick Cheney in “Vice,” “McKay seems to think we can’t be trusted to grasp what he sees as Cheney’s Machiavellian villainy unless he spells it out in cartoon language.”

The West in “Winning Time” is certainly a cartoon. Now that the series has been greenlit for a second season, it will be interesting to see whether the showrunners take West’s pushback and deep love for the Lakers into account as they develop his character and lay out his coming achievements. These include five championships in the 1980s and the signing of Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, setting off another Lakers dynasty in the ’90s. Perhaps in future episodes a more nuanced West will emerge. Or maybe, just as in the Showtime era that “Winning Time” reanimates, the mandate to entertain will always prevail.

Source photographs: Warrick Page/HBO

Elizabeth Nelson is a journalist and singer-songwriter based in Washington. Her band, the Paranoid Style, will release its new LP, “For Executive Meeting,” in August on the Bar/None Records label.