Emmy Voters, Don’t Forget the Worthy Shows That Were Canceled Way Too Soon, Like HBO’s ‘Winning Time’

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Think about how competitive the Emmy race is: There are so many excellent shows that deserve attention yet fail to make the nomination cut because they’re either not considered one of the frontrunners or they air on a broadcast network. (Sorry, broadcast networks.) That’s rough.

Now, imagine being a critically acclaimed drama on a premium network/streaming hybrid in a season where the drama race is pretty wide open. You’ve got big stars, high production values and well-known source material. Shoo-in, right?

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Not if you’ve been canceled. (Cue sad trombone sound effect.) That’s the unfortunate fate of “Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty,” the HBO series executive produced by Adam McKay that continued to earn raves in Season 2 for its heightened, not-quite-accurate-but-entertainingly-close-enough take on the 1980s rise of the “Showtime”-era Los Angeles Lakers. “Winning Time” should be in the awards conversation … but wound up getting canceled in September.

“No one wants to leave with Boston winning,” director Salli Richardson-Whitfield jokes, referring to how Season 2 ended with the Lakers’ heartbreaking 1984 NBA Finals loss to the Celtics. The show added a hastily produced coda with John C. Reilly as Jerry Buss, to give the show a slightly brighter ending. But it was an unfortunate ending to a series that should have still had its biggest moments in front of it.

“I have not run into one person who knows that I do this show that wasn’t really stunned and shocked,” Richardson-Whitfield says. “Because they loved it so much, and Adam really set up a very interesting world. As a director, there were a lot of new things that I could have explored. I think that people are going to look back and go, ‘That was a really special show.’ This was a hard show to make. But the brilliance of what I saw on set, I’ve never worked with a cast this amazing.”

Besides Reilly, that cast included Quincy Isaiah (as Magic Johnson), Jason Clarke (Jerry West), Gabby Hoffman (Claire Rothman), Solomon Hughes (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and Adrien Brody (Pat Riley). It’s truly unfortunate that “Winning Time” ended before Brody had the chance to go full, slick late-’80s Riley.

“We were really yearning for a third season,” Brody says. “We had just finally delved into the Pat Riley that I had set out to play and is the man that I recognize. It really was just the precipice of what I had intended to do and what I had been really striving to do with my representation of him. That, of course, was very disappointing for me, especially after you’ve spent years inhabiting someone and working towards achieving something. There are not many things that I would say I’d really love to have had another bite at. But that time in history, and his participation in the Lakers was really something I was looking forward to.”

There are plenty of examples of canceled shows getting Emmy nominations — such as HBO’s “Lovecraft Country,” which landed a whopping 18 nods in 2021 despite getting the ax after one season. But it’s still a rarity. Once you’re canceled, you rarely get FYC attention, as networks use their campaign dollars elsewhere. Brody and Richardson-Whitfield tell me this is the first interview they’ve even conducted for this Emmy season about “Winning Time.”

“I wanted to show my support and appreciation,” Brody says. “Obviously, we were all dealt a bit of a complicated hand with multiple strikes and an inability to promote the work that we all worked so very hard on. But I was really moved by how many people and still daily people come over and really love the show.”

If anything, awards recognition might convince someone, someday, to finish the “Winning Time” tale and get through the true Lakers dominance on the court in the late-1980s. “That would be fantastic,” Richardson-Whitfield says, while acknowledging that it would probably take a lot to get this busy cast back together again. “Adrien’s probably doing 20 movies right now at the same time. But of course, I think the fans would love it.”

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