Eulogy for Winning Time

We are gathered here today to pay respects to the deceased. On September 17, 2023, the final episode of the HBO series Winning Time aired, as it was abruptly canceled on the same day. The show followed the rise of the “Showtime” Los Angeles Lakers dynasty of the 1980’s, led by Magic Johnson, whose eccentricity saved basketball. 

This is the first time a show I’d been invested in was canceled, and there was a very real sadness there, a very petty sense of loss. I spent a few hours investing in this story, and now it’s just…gone. It’s been a little over a month now and I’m still thinking about it. Shows get canceled by the dozen these days, but this particular one still irks me. 

Winning Time was a troubled youth. It had some problems, the most critical of which was its lack of any clear audience. It wasn’t really for anybody. If you’re an NBA fan like me, you already know everything that happened. It didn’t really lean into 80’s nostalgia, which likely limited its appeal to Gen-Xers who eat up that sort of thing. I doubt that people who know nothing about the NBA would be into it either. Apart from this, it was very poorly paced, some episodes felt like they took place in real-time, others would go over three years of events in one episode. It’s also regrettable that the show ends with the Celtics winning, something that very clearly wasn’t planned. They try to make up for this with a weird “where are they now” montage, but it just fell flat, almost a little embarrassing. 

Ah, but it’s rude to speak ill of the dead– forgive me. I thought the show was very well acted, with Adrien Brody as Pat Riley being a standout. Quincy Isaiah was just excellent as Magic Johnson, and honestly, I thought every part was well cast. The directing also deserves some praise, it was dynamic and varied without feeling chaotic. It didn’t show that many full, uninterrupted sequences of actual basketball, but when that did happen, it looked great. For many shows, music can be a distraction, or serve as an emotional shorthand that does the work for the writers, but I thought Winning Time used it well. It felt strategic and intentional, a lot of shows that take place in the 80’s just throw hit songs from that era at you, but there was a lot of restraint shown here. All in all, the show had plenty of redeeming qualities that far outweighed its problems, in my view. 

Adrien Brody and Jason Segel as Pat Riley and Paul Westhead, respectively.

Losing this show is sobering for a few reasons. For one, the show averaged about 1.1 million viewers per episode. For most companies, if a million people engage with one of your many products, that would be an unequivocal home run. A million people. Is that not enough, HBO? More than the population of several U.S. states? The show’s style also could have served as a perfect template for adapting similar stories. You could do Winning Time but for the 1990’s Dallas Cowboys or the 1970’s Cincinnati Reds. That almost certainly isn’t going to happen. 

This is beyond the scope of entertainment, but “the problem” isn’t that companies want to make money. It’s not even that they want to make a lot of money. It’s that they want to make as much money as humanly possible, in ever-increasing amounts, forever and ever, at the expense of everything else. Now that the strikes are over and the WGA got everything it wanted, this corrosive attitude has been kept at bay for now. But for many, resolution came too late, Winning Time is one of many, many casualties of this mentality.

But deeper than this, the main reason why I’m so upset about it is because it feels like we’re never going to get another good T.V. show again. Succession ended out of nowhere this year, Better Call Saul concluded last summer, ending the Breaking Bad universe. I haven’t been impressed with the Marvel and Star Wars shows on Disney Plus, they feel like “content” to me (far from an original observation). Netflix was an initial powerhouse for prestige T.V., but they’ve fallen off. Their only current hit is Stranger Things, which I was an early adopter of, but stopped watching after it became bloated and aimless. We seem to be in a renaissance for reality shows, but most of those are mindless garbage, and you’re not going to convince me otherwise. There aren’t even any good sitcoms anymore! Those used to be the tentpole style of show, and now they’re an afterthought. But all of this was okay, because we had Winning Time, which could console us for the moment. And now we don’t. 

I watch too much television. I’m a stereotype, a stupid American consumer who sits in front of the idiot box all day. But over the past ten to fifteen years, it really has been the best medium, consistently producing artful, high-quality entertainment. Much like the Showtime Lakers, we were in a (purple and) golden age, and now it’s over. 

So, I’m sorry, Winning Time. You deserved better. F*ck Boston.