'Last Chance U': TV Review

Alan Markfield/Netflix
'Hard Knocks' goes to junior college.
7/29/2016

Netflix's new football docu-series is a little 'Friday Night Lights,' a little 'Blind Side.'

Let's get this out of the way: Netflix's Last Chance U should be called Last Chance CC or Last Chance JUCO, because it's about East Mississippi Community College's championship football team and not a university.

Whew.

I had to get that stupid, trifling quibble out of the way.

Apologies. It won't bother anybody else.

Premiering on Netflix on Friday (July 29), Last Chance U represents Netflix's attempt to get in on the burgeoning football documentary series marketplace, which includes the venerable Hard Knocks franchise, Amazon's new All or Nothing and Esquire's Friday Night Tykes. It's oddly discordant that in the real world, experts are getting more and more anxious about the physical dangers of football-based repeated head trauma, but ratings for the NFL aren't going down and everybody wants a piece of the gridiron docu-series business, so the race is on to find different levels and settings to chronicle.

East Mississippi Community College is located in Scooba, Mississippi, population 700-something. For years, it was an under-the-radar junior college with no particular football tradition to speak of, but since Buddy Stephens took over as coach, the team has won a trio of national titles and become such a reliable feeder program to the SEC and even the NFL that the facilities have become wildly upgraded, the football stadium is packed for every game and the community identity has become tied to the fate of the Lions.

And if that sounds a lot like Friday Night Lights, I doubt director and executive producer Greg Whiteley would be unhappy. After watching two episodes from the six-episode first season, I'd say that Last Chance U is more The Blind Side than Friday Night Lights, with all of the troubling white savior complex undertones that that implies, but there's still much to enjoy.

Last Chance U picks up with the Lions on a 24-game winning streak, but it finds the team in a point of flux, including a quarterback controversy between steady, good ol' boy Wyatt Roberts, a local product with no projectable long-term future in football, and flashy former Florida State recruit John Franklin III, undisciplined but preternaturally physically gifted. Whiteley latches onto this QB battle, which is basically Matt Saracen versus Ray "Voodoo" Tatum, only without the arcane transfer rules and the Hurricane Katrina backdrop. Sometimes fact is stranger than fiction, but sometimes fact and fiction become basically interchangeable. Other key featured players include an academically challenged running back (shades of Smash Williams, but without Mama Smash), an academically challenged linebacker with a tragic childhood and several other academically challenged potential stars.

If I pointlessly complained about the "U" in the show's title, the "last chance" part is more worth exploring, because Last Chance U has a pretty lax definition of "last chance." Many of the most famous and notorious players who have gone from top tier universities back to the JUCO world have been hoping for second (or third or fourth) chances after criminal activities, but Whiteley's focus isn't on players who might be hard to love, or at least empathize with. There but for their grades and SAT scores, most of these guys would be just fine and the struggle isn't to keep them away from drugs or alcohol or violence (at least in the early episodes), but just to get them to go to class and do their homework.

That's why in the first two hours, while Roberts and Franklin and childlike gentle giant Ronald Ollie are featured, the real star is academic advisor Brittany Wagner, a tough-talking single mother whose job it is to make sure the kids don't exceed their allowable absences and get some reading done. Wagner hogs the screen time so much that she's even featured saying the exact same things in both episodes and it becomes a Blind Side thing in which the plucky little white lady with the cute kid works desperately to help her African-American pledges stick to the straight-and-narrow. The only white player in the documentary is the only player who seems able to accept that his football career is coming to an end and he'd better be prepared to graduate and get a job. He's the only player who isn't shown having any academic or personal impediments at all. Part of this is probably the reality of the situation, but part of it is also editing fulfilling and reinforcing a familiar narrative, one that I expect will become more nuanced in subsequent episodes, but two episodes was what I was given and what I watched.

Also falling a little short, from a Friday Night Lights-based expectation viewpoint, is a view of the community, particularly the town-and-gown aspects of a town that's barely there and a gown that's newly dominated by football. My favorite scenes in the opening episodes were the ones that strayed away from the football, a few minutes of locals preparing for a game and a conversation with for EMCC coeds trying to make sense of the popularity of the football team, because that contrast enhanced the sports action.

Football is actually what Last Chance U does best. The first two episodes spend their first halves building up to big games for the Lions and then focus hard on the games themselves. I loved the sideline emotions, the key pep talks, the obscenity-laden halftime rants and way Whiteley and his editors capture the ebb and flow of the games themselves. It isn't surprising when the personalities we spent time with in the lead-up turn out to be the players who have the biggest on-field impact, but it's satisfying. The football itself is depicted from a nice number of vantage points and even with an over-reliance on slo-mo footage, it's a pretty big improvement over the staged football action of Friday Night Lights, which was rarely a series high mark.

Whitely succeeds in the basic goal of Last Chance U, which is to make you care about the success or failure of a JUCO football team in Mississippi that you may not have been aware of unless you're a big tracer of the lineage of recent Ole Miss starting quarterbacks. The series sets up some of what East Mississippi Community College different and introduces a couple decent characters who might be worth following. The question for future episodes, which I'll definitely be watching, is will the series get over its pre-packages storylines that seem compelling because they make us think about Sandra Bullock, but maybe aren't sustainable on their own. Maybe the next four episodes will offer more Scooba, more variations on the redemptive "last chance" theme and perhaps an introduction to a jock willing and able to read "The Most Dangerous Game."

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