Last week, we pondered whether HBO’s Winning Time deserved a third season. Not necessarily because the second season has been bad but because — as Wikipedia entries go — it’s been wildly entertaining. However, the storylines might not sustain a third season. Most of the great drama — the takeover of the team by Jerry Buss, the drafting of Magic Johnson, and the coaching issues — occurs in the first season and a half. After that, the Lakers simply dominated the NBA throughout the entire decade.
The Celtics were also great. In fact, either the Lakers or the Celtics appeared in the NBA Finals every year of the decade, facing each other three times, with the Lakers winning two out of three. Even if I didn’t know this, I would have found out after the second-season finale of Winning Time, which turned out to be the series finale. That’s because they reduced the rest of the Showtime era to title cards.
The cancellation didn’t come as a huge surprise. Jeff Pearlman, the author of the book on which Winning Time is based, had been warning us all season long that the series didn’t have a big enough audience to secure a renewal. It lacked the buzz of the previous season, and the cast couldn’t promote it due to the strike. More importantly, it didn’t have as many shocking moments as in the opening season, like dead bodies in trunks or coke-addicted former players hiring hitmen.
That said, the series’ ending couldn’t have been more anticlimactic. The final episode took us through the 1984 Celtics/Lakers finals, a dramatic series that the Celtics originally won in seven games. The seventh game was intense. While this YouTube video doesn’t feature the punches Lakers players threw at fans who stormed the court after the game, it’s easy to see how that might have happened in the melee following the final buzzer. Fans were swarming the court even before the game ended.
For Lakers fans and for Magic Johnson, it was a heartbreaking loss, as depicted in the series. The second season was supposed to end with a somber Magic Johnson pondering the loss in the locker room shower.
However, after HBO informed them of the cancellation, they appended an additional goofy scene between Jerry Buss and his daughter, Jeannie Buss, lying on the floor of The Forum. In this scene, they basically conveyed that their future would be just fine because the Busses were rich and owned The Forum.
The rest of the decade was then summarized in title cards: Magic and Bird would win eight titles between them; Pat Riley would secure six titles with the Lakers; Jerry West would later draft Kobe Bryant; and after Magic Johnson’s HIV diagnosis, one of his first calls came from Larry Bird.
It was akin to concluding the original Star Wars trilogy after The Empire Strikes Back and using title cards to inform viewers of what happened in Return of the Jedi. It felt anticlimactic and hacky. The series might not have necessarily needed a third season, but it deserved better than an abbreviated 7-episode second season that ended with a devastating Lakers loss. They could have covered the next two series between the Lakers and Celtics in three more episodes. It also would have been nice to see Magic Johnson dealing with his HIV diagnosis, announcing it, and grappling with the aftermath. After all, the announcement was the cold open of the entire series.
In other words, HBO shortchanged its viewers. They pulled a Netflix. Or maybe Netflix has been pulling an HBO tis whole time — since Zaslav took over, Max has a 26 percent cancellation rate, higher than any other streamer.