Move over Ted Lasso, I’ve already seen this year’s best sports drama

Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty
(Image credit: HBO)

The problem with dramas with sport at their heart, whether on the big or small screen, is that they just can’t compete with the real thing. 

The sheer thrill of a last-minute goal or touchdown is impossible to recreate when a big chunk of the audience knows it’s coming. 

That’s why the best movies and shows of recent years have focused on events off the pitch, or court, or diamond. Aaron Sorkin’s brilliant drama Moneyball isn’t about the introduction of a statistical-based approach to picking baseball players, it’s about a man against the system. 

Apple TV Plus’ giant hit Ted Lasso isn’t really about football (soccer). In fact, the scenes where the characters are required to play are the most cringeworthy bits for anybody accustomed to the power, pace, and finesse of the Premier League. 

Ted Lasso is a show about triumphing against the odds and not giving up, the action on the pitch is incidental at best.  

With all of this in mind, it makes HBO’s new drama, Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty, all the more remarkable. 

Why? Because the players on the court are crucial to the story and so is how they play, but even a total basketball novice like me found the show utterly compelling. 

Hoop dreams

Winning Time chronicles the 1980s Showtime era of the Los Angeles Lakers basketball team. 

It begins with eccentric playboy Jerry Buss scraping together the money to buy the team, recruiting the young Magic Johnson (even I'd heard of him), and finding a coach to turn his team, which was struggling to get a crowd, never mind win anything, into a force in the NBA.

As the show goes on, the Lakers’ style of play, which became known as Showtime due to its relentless pursuit of points and fast, swashbuckling style, begins to pay dividends, taking the team all the way to the highest of heights.

Shot in grainy 1980s camcorder style, the show’s casting is pitch-perfect. John C. Reilly is the larger-than-life Buss, newcomer Quincy Isaiah is on great form as the cocky, perma-grinning Johnson, while the likes of Jason Segel, Gaby Hoffman, Jason Clarke, Tracy Letts, and Sally Field are all terrific in key supporting roles.

An all-star team

Adam McKay, who oversaw the series as well as directing the pilot, is one of the key men here, and Winning Time borrows from McKay’s hugely successful financial drama The Big Short in its storytelling. 

Characters constantly break the fourth wall, addressing the camera and the audience directly to explain the move they’re about to make. It’s not constant, maybe once or twice an episode, and often it’s confined to just Riley and Isaiah's characters, but it really works here.

The on-court drama is blended perfectly with the off-court drama. The whole series has a real propulsion with the Lakers’ season really feeling like it could fall to pieces at any given moment. 

Death-defying accidents, near financial ruin, constant back-biting and fighting among the players, it’s all in there.

Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty

(Image credit: HBO)

Winning Time captures absolutely what’s brilliant about following a team, regardless of what sport they play. 

It showcases the big characters within the locker room and within the board room, how giant egos clash, but somehow they find themselves pulled in the same direction.

It’s a 10-episode run, and I blitzed through it in no time at all. Every episode was followed by a good 15-minute Google of the Lakers’ players and their opponents. That was how much I enjoyed it.

Even if you can’t stand sports of any kind, there’s an awful lot to love about Winning Time and it’s well worth a go, especially with a second season on the way next year.

Of course, one of the worst things about enjoying a show is the instant lookout for a new drama to get stuck into. We really want to help solve that, so we've cooked up some of the best Netflix shows and best Hulu shows for you - we (pretty much) guarantee your new favorite is on there.

Tom Goodwyn
Freelance Entertainment Writer

Tom Goodwyn was formerly TechRadar's Senior Entertainment Editor. He's now a freelancer writing about TV shows, documentaries and movies across streaming services, theaters and beyond. Based in East London, he loves nothing more than spending all day in a movie theater, well, he did before he had two small children…