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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

‘Winning Time’ and the joys of unnecessary shows

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) arrives on the House steps surrounded by reporters after speaking on the House floor, threatening to file a motion to vacate against House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), in Washington on Monday, Oct. 2, 2023.

By Ross Douthat

A few weeks ago, a little bit before the Hollywood writers strike finally resolved itself, HBO announced that it would be canceling “Winning Time,” the show about the 1980s Los Angeles Lakers just then wrapping up its second season. You don’t want to make too much of any one cancellation, but since I was a fan of the show, I’ll take the risk and say that its truncation was a bellwether for the transformation of television that everyone sees happening — the end of the streaming smorgasbord, the end of Peak TV.

My view of this transformation is close to the one offered in The New York Times by Roy Price, the former head of Amazon Studios, who argued that the financial unsustainability of the great streaming expansion is pushing Hollywood away from challenging shows with smaller audiences but lots of cultural cachet and “back toward shows with lower prestige but higher viewership,” in a kind of “CBS-ification” of the newer platforms.

This trend runs in parallel to what I’ve described before as the rise of Blockbuster TV — the attempt to do for television what Marvel did for movies, using superhero properties or “Star Wars” iterations or fantasy adaptations to generate and maintain reliable tentpole franchises. But the relative disappointment of some of the blockbuster offerings might make CBS-ification seem like the safer bet — blandness over bigness, because bigness risks too much.

Price calls this the end of “prestige TV,” but I prefer the term Peak TV because not all prestige shows are created equal: There’s a difference between the television era that began with “The Sopranos” (with, yes, various antecedents — save your emails, “Oz” fans and Bochco-heads) and was dominated by HBO’s Sunday nights, as opposed to the last decade or so, which has been dominated by the streaming wars.

The former period had fewer shows overall, more talent (acting and writing and directing) concentrated in those shows and a more auteurist spirit in the way it elevated and empowered its showrunners. It was dominated by a small group of landmark serials, many of them renovations or reinventions of classic American genres, which didn’t always command huge audiences but claimed a lot of the cultural terrain previously occupied by high-middlebrow, Oscar-seeking movies. Which meant, for those who lamented the decline of motion pictures, that television seemed like the consolation; we were losing The Movies as they used to be, but at least we had “Deadwood” and “The Wire” and “Breaking Bad.”

The Peak TV era extended this spirit in certain ways and produced shows that felt similarly worthy — from “Girls” and “The Americans” to, most recently, “Succession.” But it was defined more by surplus or superabundance on the one hand (you get a show, and you get a show, and you get a show — although, alas, nobody hired me to run one) and a decline in quality on the other, with a lot of shows that imitated golden-age narratives but with weaker writing or premises or casts.

The superabundance was nice for obsessive TV viewers, especially in the early COVID era, but it meant that even the best shows disappeared a little bit into the cultural churn rather than becoming required viewing or driving interesting conversation or debate. Meanwhile, the quality drop-off meant that shows that started off strong had a way of deteriorating rapidly or botching their conclusions — the “Westworld” phenomenon, the “Yellowjackets” phenomenon, and let’s not even talk about how “Game of Thrones” finished up. And I think when cultural histories are written, it’s the prior phase, the years from the “Sopranos” premiere to, let’s say, the “Breaking Bad” finale, that will be portrayed as the actual golden age of television, with Peak TV a silver period.

But if the Peak TV era is ending, a show like “Winning Time” is a good example of what I’ll miss about it. There was no necessary artistic reason for a show about the Lakers to exist, the showrunners didn’t aspire toward sweeping social commentary or searing insights into the human soul, and the cast was too large to dig all that deeply into any given character’s story. “The Sopranos” or even “Succession” it was not.

Instead, it was no more but also no less than what its title promised, which was a fun look at a wild time in sports with a lot of star power (John C. Reilly, Adrien Brody, Jason Clarke, Michael Chiklis, a terrific Jason Segel) in important roles and some real brilliance in the actors playing its most famous characters: Quincy Isaiah as Magic Johnson, Solomon Hughes as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Sean Patrick Small as Larry Bird.

Fun alone isn’t grist for cultural commentary; I probably wouldn’t be writing about “Winning Time” if it hadn’t been canceled prematurely. But I would have watched it for however many seasons without worrying about the slumps that afflict higher concept shows, enjoying it without thinking too much about it — which is a nice thing to have in your life. Nice enough, indeed, that I would have welcomed imitators as well — a show about the Reggie Jackson-Billy Martin New York Yankees or the Joe Namath New York Jets and the AFL-NFL wars.

My hopeful guess is that contraction and consolidation won’t entirely eliminate highbrow or high-middlebrow aspirations on television: I agree with Price’s semi-optimistic conclusion that somebody will try to be 1990s HBO if everybody else is trying to be 1990s CBS. But the new era seems like it will definitely kill off or preclude a lot of shows like “Winning Time” — shows that don’t quite have auteurist cachet but got made in the last five years out of a spirit of abundance, a sense of, “Adrien Brody as Pat Riley? Why not?” (A question that may soon be answered with, “Because it’s cheaper to produce three new cooking shows and two ‘NCIS’ spinoffs instead.”)

Meanwhile, notwithstanding the “Barbenheimer” frenzy, the movies don’t seem poised for a major cultural recovery. (As I write this, the only movie theater in my city is closing.) So the end of Peak TV’s abundance means less small-screen compensation for the big screen’s diminishment, and less space for creative ambition, period — whether that ambition runs toward difficulty and brilliance, or merely toward entertainment and delight.

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