Below is a spoiler-free review of Netflix’s six-episode sports documentary debut, Last Chance U. At a later time, I hope to share some thoughts on the series which will include spoilers. I highly encourage fans of the sports documentary genre to strap in and watch with as little information possible as the element of surprise really adds a jolt to the series.
I review a lot of sports documentaries and I can admit, I’m a bit of a cheerleader for the industry. I like the majority of them, feel a sizable chunk of them are “meh,” which leaves of small fraction that I absolutely love.
Netflix’s first original sports documentary, Last Chance U, doesn’t fit in any of these buckets as the chaos and complexity chronicled in the final episodes put in an elite category reserved for a pantheon of classics like Hoop Dreams and the original Friday Night Lights book (a takeaway many others came to as well).
I say that having watched pretty much everything the genre has to offer. To me, it’s akin to a favorite meal like a certain sandwich, a burrito, or pasta dish that you get again and again at restaurants you visit. If you’re documenting a football team’s season (other sports work as well), then I’m game. That includes the standard bearers as well off the radar installments like a 4th and Forever, The Year of The Bull, Go Tigers, Undefeated (Academy Award winner for best documentary and yet nowhere as memorable as Last Chance U), and so on and so on. If there is something I’ve missed and haven’t seen, by all means let me know and I’ll buy you a beer.
It’s easy to dismiss Last Chance U as just being another standard foray into the genre. It came out of left field with little fanfare (Netflix only announced its debut earlier this summer). There is no major college program or NFL team to attract eyeballs to the series unlike Amazon’s recent All or Nothing or Showtime’s A Season With. Instead, the subject matter is the team from East Mississippi Community College. It’s got a flashy non specific name, a lesser known director, and a very modest and somewhat clumsy PR push (the series was only brought to our attention through a rogue SBN writer who thought we’d have more interest in the series).
Early on in its 6 episode run, Last Chance U doesn’t pop as this transcending series as the usual narratives are there. Here is a team that needs to win because _____, their coach is likable or at least entertaining because _____, the area they are from is unique because ____, and the players are unique and worth rooting for because ____. Emphasizing what fills in those blanks usually delivers some solid entertainment as you begin to get invested in the team’s success and identify with the culture of the team and town. But then things begin to take a turn. I liken it to The Wire where early on you could dismiss it as cops vs. bad guys show, but as it goes on the ambition and storytelling builds with much more depth and complexity.
@bkoo I really liked it, they didn’t show anything to suggest how you should feel about any of the players or coaches
— Brad Morgan (@bigbad25) August 8, 2016
Suddenly you find yourself less interested in the footage on the practice field or from the games and rather the casual meetings the players have with their academic advisor, who is the real series protagonist. The players and coaches that are highlighted are not celebrated or shamed in typical Hollywood framing. Your emotions and opinions on many of them will ping pong back and forth because these are messy individuals in messy scenarios……you know like REAL people are in REAL life.
The complexity of Last Chance U boils down to three struggles that are intertwined but is under constant pressure of unraveling at any moment. They include:
– EMCC’s quest for its 3rd consecutive JUCO national championship, something that at times requires the unsportsmanlike running up of the score on lesser opponents which can lead to unintended consequences.
– The players’ quest to move on from EMCC by earning a D1 scholarship offer. Almost the entirety of EMCC’s roster should be playing D1 ball, but either flunked out or was kicked out of their first choice school or never had the grades to land a D1 offer. None of the players want to be there as evidenced that many have a countdown app on their phone as they struggle with being away from home (many with kids of their own at home), in a town with 700 residents, but with the highest of expectations.
– The most compelling narrative is the anguish of the players and their academic struggle that serves potentially the most insightful and introspective look at the student athlete dynamic that exists in media. Yes, you may want to stand up and scream at some of the bad decisions that take place on the football field but the more memorable and poignant moments take place in academic counselor Brittany Wagner’s office.
At times, you’ll lose your mind with the effort, mentoring, and compassion Ms. Wagner (who evokes a bit of Tami Taylor) extends to members of the team. While I’m sure there are Ms. Wagners all over high schools and colleges across the country who are just as saintly, the scenes in her office are a window into the high friction and high stakes fault-line of student vs athlete. Every year, her goal is to keep players eligible and while that doesn’t sound overtly difficult, she’s almost specifically given the throwaways who are deemed too difficult to turn around. It’s gutting to watch as you see the smallest of things (having a pencil, attending enough classes to not get dropped, going to school despite ruled out for a game due to injury) ominously and persistently linger over the team. She’s putting out fires almost every moment of every day… a true blue miracle worker.
During some moments, you’ll want to scream at the players to not let the opportunity they have pass them by. Many of the featured players are in peril the entirety of the series and even one of the featured players’ academic eligibility is still in question half a year later. You have many moments where you may even fault Ms. Wagner for not saying “enough is enough” and mixing in more bad cop into the mix of many roles that grease the wheel for the university and the kids to continue on.
But you may also find yourself so pained by some of these scenes that you may question the required academic path being a professional football player requires. It’s one more stringent and longer than any other major pro sport. Clearly, many of these kids have failed a large part by their own doing but their total inability to function in even the most athlete friendly academic environment hints that many around them have failed them as well and the effects of those combined failures have been damaging enough where no level of mentoring can spark the cognitive and habitual changes needed to change the outcome of this high stakes chance at something better.
One of the benefits of featuring a school and program so off the radar like EMCC is the amount of authenticity, access, and honesty the filmmakers were given which you don’t just don’t see in other all access series. Access comes with strings…. typically. To be concise, Last Chance U is just way more real and that realness spans a lot of topics such as sex, race, recruiting, academics and the head coach’s conduct that will leave you going “I can’t believe they said that on camera.” After viewing Last Chance U, some of the more ridiculous stories and plots in Varsity Blues, Friday Night Lights, and other fictional films just don’t seem that implausible anymore.
As much as I’m touting Last Chance U as this iconic film, the reality is the key ingredient in its achievement was a bit of luck that came through in a big way. When doing an all access series, there are really three factors in play and I liken them to the wheels on a slot machine.
** The first wheel is what the filmmakers choose as their focus and their level of access. EMCC was a hidden gem that was tipped off via a GQ article that is required reading to anyone who watches.
** The second wheel is the quality of the filmmaking. While I give high marks to Greg Whiteley and his crew, there were some blemishes that stood out. I found myself really annoyed with the some of the small and hard to read fonts used. More importantly, many times over I found myself wanting more context to some of the events in EMCC’s season and their players (no narration was a large part of this). I still have no idea how the JUCO National Championship system works and many times throughout the series, I found myself a bit lost following their season and the recruitments of individual players, which says a lot as I used to cover college recruiting many years ago. All that said, the filmmakers got much more right and the access and subject matter far make up for any minor flaws in the filmmaking.
** Where Last Chance U absolutely triumphs is what unfolds. This is the wheel that determines the jackpot and luck smiled on Netflix and the filmmakers as a project largely hinges on what transpires while filming. For those who avoid spoilers, you’ll be rewarded. The final two episodes take a while to gestate and I suspect many will rewatch the series or parts of it to get a better grasp on what transpires and the complex characters it ultimately effects. That’s the real difference maker here is that the ending of the series doesn’t get tied up with a nice and neat bow for the audience. Many describe it as jaw dropping and it’s not just the final ten minutes but really the final two episodes. It’s gripping television the likes of which really hasn’t been equaled in the realm of Hard Knocks or the many other series and docs that try to catch lightning in a bottle. There is just too much to digest and too many unanswered questions to just flip the channel and see what else is on.
Ultimately, Last Chance U is a breath of fresh air to a genre that was beginning to become a bit stale with mechanized boiler plater production and common cliches and narratives. Sure this makes for good television and cinema, but sometimes it’s not necessarily a sincere and truthful reality.
Last Chance U delivers the authenticity that has been dissipating for years and puts forth a cornucopia of complex individuals, issues, and unexpected twists that in my mind elevates it to a status that is very rarely achieved. Something like this just doesn’t come around too often as evidenced the grandiose title to this article and you’d be wise to invest the time and energy to what I’d consider a landmark achievement in a growingly crowded and competitive space.