But the West in “Winning Time” doesn’t square with the real Jerry West’s recollections, or with the recollections of many others who were part of the Lakers organization at the time. When West recently asked HBO for a retraction and an apology, several figures from the show, including Abdul-Jabbar (who also objected to his own portrayal) and the former Forum executive Claire Rothman, were quick to take his side. They maintain that West was not a yeller and not erratic in his work and that they never saw him drinking in his office. And while it’s always possible that time and friendship have softened everyone’s memories, it’s notable that West’s more outrageous moments on the show aren’t in Pearlman’s book. In response to West’s criticism, HBO released a statement saying that “Winning Time” is “based on extensive factual research and reliable sourcing,” but that it is “not a documentary.”
You could say the same for a lot of shows these days. From the latest iteration of “The Staircase,” dramatizing a mysterious death in North Carolina that was chronicled in a 2004 documentary, to “WeCrashed,” about the failed start-up WeWork, to “Pam & Tommy,” which reimagines Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee’s marriage and sex tape, contemporary television is awash in semi-fictionalized accounts of recent-ish events. These shows elide the logistical and cost concerns associated with telling a new story from scratch by falling back on a prefabricated narrative. The reason for this boomlet — call it Oven-Ready TV — is the same reason Hollywood churns out superhero movies: It’s seen as a safe form of intellectual property to invest in. “Everything’s expensive to make, and everyone wants to keep their job,” the journalist turned true-crime TV writer Bruce Bennett told me. “If you walk in the door pitching something that’s been done in some other medium or arena, there’s a built-in sense of safety and familiarity for the development and production people who have to pay for the thing.”
The most prominent recent example of this phenomenon is “The Dropout,” Hulu’s arch dramatization of the rise and fall of the Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes, which followed the 2018 book “Bad Blood,” a raft of overlapping podcasts and an HBO documentary by Alex Gibney called “The Inventor.” Watching the dramatization back-to-back with Gibney’s film, it’s striking how much stranger Holmes seems in real life when compared with Amanda Seyfried’s excellent, humanizing portrayal. Where “Winning Time” uses West’s character to amp up the drama, “The Dropout” seems to tone Holmes down for its own purposes — making her more likable, more sympathetic. It’s an understandable narrative decision, but also a curious one, given how easy it is to observe the real Holmes in so many venues and notice the glaring difference. (Another recent example, “Inventing Anna,” made many journalists’ eyes roll for its inauthentic portrayal of the reporting process and life at New York magazine.)
‘If you walk in the door pitching something that’s been done in some other medium or arena, there’s a built-in sense of safety and familiarity.’
But what do any of these shows owe to the people they are depicting, and to the viewer who spends many, many hours with characters they might reasonably expect to be something like the real thing? West, a victim of child poverty and domestic violence, has been painfully candid about the adverse circumstances that shaped him and his desperate bouts with anxiety and depression. He wrote about this in his 2011 autobiography, “West By West: My Charmed, Tormented Life,” and a beautiful Sports Illustrated feature that same year went even further in chronicling West’s struggles with self-loathing and suicidal thoughts.