I called season one of Last Chance U a “once-in-a-decade sports documentary“. I was prepared for a significant dropoff for season two, but was surprised that the second go around relatively held its own when compared to season one. While the third season certainly is a compelling watch, I think most viewers will be hard pressed to say it matches up to the prior two installments.
With the show moving to a new school, new state, and featuring new personalities, there is a bit of a breaking in period as we get acquainted with all of the new faces and different dynamics in play for upstart Independence Community College, as opposed to Eastern Mississippi Community College. In some ways, it reminded me of the second season of the acclaimed The Wire, where the show moves to a new setting and the first few episodes don’t feel the same as the prior season. But soon enough, the series settles back into the comfortable groove that viewers connected with. It should be noted that the “rough” season two of The Wire helped setup what many consider the best two seasons of the show (and some say best seasons in television history). Perhaps if the show returns for a fourth season back at Independence, we’ll see Last Chance U hit new creative heights.
So what’s different, and what stands out in season three?
A perfectly flawed head coach that works as a protagonist
One of the things that made Last Chance U such a revelation in its first season was that most viewers came away with a negative opinion of head coach Buddy Stephens. His attempted image rehabilitation was an emphasis of the second season, but left many viewers unconvinced the legendary coach had softened much.
Independence head coach Jason Brown is no saint by any means. For most of this season, I went back and forth on my opinion on him. There are moments where you’d like to see him be the bigger man when he butts heads with players. There are times he takes things way too far and you question if his behavior is detrimental to the team. The school’s president certainly vocalizes his disdain of how crass Brown can be in public and worries about the direction of the team under Brown’s leadership.
That said, I loved Brown and considerably warmed up to him by the end of the season. One thing Brown had that Stephens lacked was self awareness and a more worldly perspective than Stephens. Brown certainly runs as hot as Stephens does (if not hotter), but Brown was significantly more telling, thoughtful, open, and honest when off the field. Brown has significantly more memorable moments speaking with his players in the locker room, his office, the coaches room, the local bar, or smoking a cigar in his hot tub. Brown has a sharp tongue and mind that regularly trots out extremely truthful, memorable, and at times hilarious sayings and stories.
Coming from a unique upbringing, being raised in mostly black Compton, Brown is a much more colorful and relatable character as we learn he is the owner of four Cadillacs (the fourth being acquired while on the show) with Brown stealing numerous scenes in each episode with his sharp tongue. Brown boils over many times, but to some degree, we’re left to wonder if his often belligerent demeanor and attitude is part of the special sauce of his coaching success. However, Brown’s worst moments are often counterbalanced with moments of compassion, self deprecation, humor, and throughout the season, brutal honesty. All of these traits steer him towards being the show’s protagonist after two seasons in which viewers struggled to embrace Stephens in a similar way.
You just can’t replace Brittany Wagner
The biggest revelation of the first two seasons of Last Chance U was the team’s academic advisor Brittany Wagner. I called her a true miracle worker and enjoyed my interview with her in 2016. Obviously, she didn’t pop up in season three and (there’s no easy way to say this) the show certainly struggled to fill her presence. Director Greg Whiteley told me that “Brittany has a certain star quality on camera, that you are never going to replace.”
LaTonya Pinkard (or Ms. P, as the players call her) is the show’s academic presence and while she has some very memorable scenes and is equally devoted to her craft, there is a stark difference between her and Wagner, putting aside star quality (or lack thereof).
Pinkard is an English teacher who we see going the extra mile, spending time with players via tutoring and a book club. Ms. Wagner’s role was as an academic counselor and her role was significantly different, in that her entire role (and livelihood) was focused on keeping players on the football team academically qualified and on track to transfer to a four year university.
For viewers, it basically felt like Ms. Wagner had a cliffhanger type hand grip with damn near half the football team as they slowly slipped towards ineligibility and likely the end of their playing and academic careers. A lot of these players had and have no safety net below and we’ve seen players seemingly on track for stardom, only to find themselves incarcerated months later. The high stakes goodness of Ms. Wagner was just some of the best stuff on all of television, and it just isn’t really there in as significant of a way in season three.
Ms. Pinkard certainly does her part and then some, but you may recall Ms Wagner and her open door policy led to some memorable moments where she bonded and mentored so many of the featured players from the first two seasons. That closeness, that high stakes academic peril, and yes…her star power is sorely missed in season three.
I think if Last Chance U is to continue going forward, it would be wise for future schools to have someone similar to Ms. Wagner as an academic counselor willing to allow the access needed to showcase the every day goodness and miracle working required in that role. Season three doesn’t get us as close to the academic side of these student athletes and their “last chance”.
Different expectations and a lot of growing pains
Let’s start with the football program itself. EMCC was a perennial contender and actually won the JUCO championship in its first year not being featured on Last Chance U. From the very first episode to the last in season two, EMCC is in the thick of the national championship race. It was always within their grasp to some degree.
Independence does actually spend some period of time in the mix for the JUCO national championship, but as more of a dark horse contender who needs some help along the way. Independence is coming off a stretch of decades of being a doormat in their conference and only has had one winning season before Netflix joins them in their second season under turnaround expert, Coach Brown. The pressure, the expectations, and the passion from the community and school itself is just not there yet, and you can feel it while watching.
But more significantly is that the program itself is going through great growing pains. As director Greg Whiteley told me:
“Buddy Stephens- when he would go to play a home game four hours away, he didn’t lift a finger on game day or the day before. There were all these buses lined up and it was wrapped with the team’s logos. They were very nice and had security detail and had all the equipment loaded and they knew to the minute when they were going to eat lunch or arrive at their hotel, or when they would arrive to the stadium and what their pre-game meal would be. Because after six or seven years of being successful, they had worked out all those kinks.
To watch Jason Brown come to a school that had not adequately walked through and figured out those kinks or was doing it all over again from scratch, it was completely eye-opening to watch this poor man wear half a dozen different hats the day of the game – not the least of which was figuring out what plays to call. More importantly, it was ‘are we even going to have uniforms ready for the first game?’ They didn’t even have uniforms ready the night before the first game. They were scrambling to find a restaurant that could accommodate 75 players for an away game. How do you get them there? Well, we have to charter buses obviously, but where do we do that? He’s on the phone haggling prices with them, he’s haggling with the pizza vendors, he’s haggling with Adidas that is supplying the uniforms.”
Issues with uniforms, game footballs, the quality of the players’ food, and countless other issues pop up throughout the series. I don’t think any of this actually detracts from the viewing experience, but these logistical hiccups does seem to lurk over the team and the show to a point where it dilutes some of the more potent themes showcased in the first two seasons.
Competitive games mean more screen time for compelling action, but less focus on the players’ backstories
EMCC’s margin of victory in season one was over 41 points. In season two, it was over 26 points. This season? 1o points. and if you subtract Independence’s one blowout win, that number shrinks to five points.
Almost every single game was a heart attack for Independence and it wasn’t just the football action that was riveting. Each game seemed to have it’s own insane drama on the sidelines. Almost every episode had moments during the game where you’d watch these train wreck moments and think the season and the team itself was on the verge of imploding. Crisis was almost regularly averted or skirted and it all made for *fantastic* TV…but at what tradeoff? Whiteley explained this balancing act to me in our interview.
“I think there’s no question because the games themselves were so exciting week in and week out, that it gave us an opportunity to document those games in [new] ways [because] we never had that luxury in years past. We were balancing that you could conceivably make an hour long episode each week about each game that Independence played last year, because almost all of them, with maybe the exception of one game, were extremely compelling. It wasn’t just compelling because the score was close and it was going down to the final minutes of the fourth quarter, or in one case overtime, although that was certainly exciting.
What was also exciting were all of these players who we had gotten to know off the field were having unbelievable dramas unfold on the sidelines during these games. We would have been negligent to not have been documenting what was happening week in and week out at these games, because they were so exciting both on and off the field during the games, but you are absolutely right – we had to show real discipline. And remember, this is not a football show. This is a show about these kids and their backstories. And I would say because of the nature of those games, we fought in each episode to find what we thought was the right balance between football and off the field drama.”
For some, I imagine they’ll love this season because of the meatier footage shown from the games themselves. I know I was glued to my TV with my stomach in knots watching these games (especially the thriller shown in the fight episode, which for me was the best of the season). However, I felt like I didn’t get to know the players as much as in previous seasons in terms of backstory and personality. Part of that is due to the less amount of time available thanks to the added focus on the games themselves, but I also think the loss of the moments with someone like Ms. Wagner was also a driving factor there.
There was very little redemption and rehabilitation to be found for Malik Henry
Throughout the first two seasons of Last Chance U, you generally rooted for all of the players despite their obvious flaws, transgressions, bad attitudes, and tough to watch moments. Some players were tougher to get behind and perhaps the season would end and you’d still be on the fence about if they were a character who was worthy of your rooting interest.
However, season three presents us with enigmatic former prep QB star Malik Henry. Henry played at four different high schools and flamed out at Florida State under murky circumstances. Independence was supposed to be his redemption and a launching pad back to big time college football.
As of this article, it’s unclear where Henry will play next year, and the show states he did not receive an offer from a Power 5 conference. That maybe due to his marginal stats of 10 TDs and eight interceptions in (to be fair) what seemed like a run heavy offense, although Henry himself rushed for just seven yards on the season.
But what rang loud and clear was that Henry is, at the very least, a very high maintenance person. I thought about creating a list of the incidents Henry was involved in throughout the season, but the reality is that there were more episodes and games that did have significant incidents than didn’t have them. He just never seemed to mature or be self aware enough to know he needed to for the betterment of himself and the team.
From smaller things like pouting about play-calling, personnel decisions, and a lack of organization at times, to much more significant moments like taunting opposing players with racial slurs, blatant insubordination, and general academic and athletic indifference, one has to wonder if Henry may have shut the door in his football playing career. If he’s currently a football orphan with what’s already known about him, I’m hard-pressed to think a major D1 program will see the pattern of behavior shown in this season and want to take a chance on Henry now.
To some degree, this made this season a bit of a bitter pill to swallow as you had this negative presence and major personality lurking without the positive counter balance of a Ms. Wagner.
Ultimately, Last Chance U’s devotion to an honest portrayal of the messy work of JUCO football provided another great season, but one that struggled to equal the high bar set in the first two seasons. Let’s hope Netflix greenlights another season, and perhaps the post-EMCC formula is tweaked just a bit as I know I’d love for the show to return and would embrace another season at Independence.