Led by producer-director Greg Whiteley, the team behind Netflix’s Last Chance U is tremendously good at what they do.
That doesn’t mean that every season of Last Chance U has been tremendous. As with any unstructured, fly-on-the-wall piece of unscripted storytelling, the Last Chance U crew is at the mercy of whatever junior college football team they’re following in a given season. Will the team have a compelling arc? Will players and their personalities evolve in compelling ways? Will a grand narrative emerge, and will it be dramatically satisfying?
But after five seasons, I feel comfortable that whatever the story ends up being, the Last Chance U team will tell it as well as it can be told, which is a hugely reassuring sensation to have as you’re sitting down to watch eight hours of TV.
Last Chance U: Laney is that fifth and allegedly final football season for the brand, which will expand to JUCO basketball next (Whiteley and some of his colleagues also previously carried the show’s structure and rhythms over to Cheer). It’s a satisfying change of pace for the franchise after two years at Kansas’ Independence Community College, where Coach Jason Brown’s abusive and self-aggrandizing approach made for good TV, but sucked all of the oxygen out of the locker room, rendering the actual players a near afterthought in the fourth season.
So look at Last Chance U: Laney as a welcome palate cleanser, sometimes impeded by real events, but restoring balance to the franchise’s focus and exhibiting an admirable willingness to tackle larger topics in the process.
For Last Chance U fans, this is a season of marked contrasts. Leaving behind the small-town settings of the first four years, communities in which the football team was often the biggest show in town, our new season unfolds at Laney College, located in sight of downtown Oakland. Nobody tries pretending that Oakland lives or dies on the performance of the Laney College Eagles — the near empty stadiums on game day make that point clearly — so Whitely and company decide to instead illustrate how Laney mirrors its home city. Several episodes become an exploration of gentrification and what happens to an urban space when the people who have lived there for generations can no longer afford to stay. In this respect, it’s a more provocative and timely season.
That’s carried through to the Laney players who, unlike the players in previous seasons, aren’t eligible for athletic scholarships. That means that instead of oversized kids in cramped dorms dedicating their every second to football, some of these players are commuting from more affordable accommodations, others working multiple jobs in addition to their classes and football. At least one player is sleeping in his car.
This yields player-driven storylines that may resemble arcs from the past, but rarely go exactly where you expect. Will there be an inevitable quarterback controversy as injuries and ineptitude force the team to the brink? Sure, but that uncertainty is captured through the eyes of Dior, a financially strapped wide receiver who worries that his selfless decision to fill in at QB might impact his ability to get recruited at his true position.
Will there be an ego-driven “Just gimme the ball!” wide receiver pushed to the breaking point over little things like properly running routes? Sure, but that archetype here is embodied by RJ, whose insecurities stem from a family history like nothing you’ve seen on the show before.
Will there be a lovable lunkhead who means well, but can’t properly commit to his studies? Sure, but Nu’u, living with his wife, two kids and parents, is one of the most sympathetic characters. The stories you’re invested in after the first episodes may not be the ones you most care about as the season nears its end, which is mostly a good thing.
The biggest change, naturally, is in central coaching philosophy, where John Beam is introduced as almost the opposite of Jason Brown. Beam is an Oakland lifer, a legendary high school dynasty-maker turned JUCO program-builder. On his desk, he has a picture with Cory Booker and a therapist wife of nearly 40 years of whom he declares, “She very rarely sees a negative in anybody. Other than our current president.”
While Brown’s approach was to batter players until they needed therapy, Beam encourages troubled players to consult with his wife and to seek other mental health treatment when necessary — a counterpoint to the show’s usual obsession with players’ physical well-being. Beam is so darned woke he knows the term “Latinx.”
He’s no Jason Brown, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t prone to occasional statements like, “I guarantee you I’ll rip your fucking nuts off if you fuck up in the game on Saturday. And that’s only because I like you. If I didn’t like you, I’d rip ’em off and make you eat ’em.” Yeah, John Beam isn’t Jason Brown, but don’t go thinking that Last Chance U has gone entirely soft. Even the most seemingly avuncular of authority figures — and John Beam, with his droopy mustache and tendency toward dorkiness, is the embodiment of avunicularity — can become threatening and intimidating in moments of adversity.
All of the stories are told with the formal confidence that fans of Last Chance U have come to expect. Episodes are tightly edited and usually designed to build to a climactic game of the week, which Whiteley and his fellow directors are able to shoot with an immediacy that has only been enhanced through familiarity and technological enhancement. I may be wrong, but I feel like the on-field audio this season is a big improvement on past seasons — especially the insight it gives us into Rejzohn, the trash-talking cornerback who’s supposed to be the team’s star player. It’s all tied together by the score from Joseph Minadeo and Yuri Tomanek.
Last Chance U: Laney stretches from the fall of 2019 into the spring of 2020 and the start of the COVID-19 quarantine. It’s a reminder that even if producers hadn’t already announced that they were done with football — the first basketball season is, thankfully, already in the can — shooting this autumn would border on impossible anyway. Maybe a little downtime will restore their appetite for more football in the future, because a format this reliable is too good to abandon entirely.
Premieres Tuesday, July 28 on Netflix.