'Losers': TV Review

Like an inspirational, animation-filled '30 for 30' miniseries.
3/1/2019

Mickey Duzyj's eight-part Netflix docuseries covers a diverse variety of athletes who may have lost in high-profile fashion, but definitely aren't 'Losers.'

I have to assume it's a glorious coincidence that Netflix is premiering the new sports documentary series Losers on March 1, which happens to be the 25th anniversary of the release of Beck's iconic Mellow Gold. The breakout single off that album was, of course, the genre-bending anthem "Loser," a song that mixes comedy and defiance and a killer hook in the name of reclaiming the "loser" identification.

Without exactly emulating or evoking Beck's stream-of-consciousness profound nonsense, Netflix's Losers has a similar goal. The eight-part series is executive produced and directed by Mickey Duzyj and focuses on eight so-called losers from across the world of global sports and recontextualizes both their failures and how their lives after failure defied their primary image.

Duzyj, building on a background that blends documentary and animation, previously helmed the ESPN 30 for 30 short The Shining Star of Losers Everywhere, which celebrated the famously prolific and famously winless racehorse Haru Urara and was basically the template for this ongoing series. I'm sure there's an explanation for how ESPN and the 30 for 30 banner lost out on Losers, and ESPN and 30 for 30 are clearly the losers in this situation, because Losers plays as a fine and worthy model for a 30 for 30 miniseries. In total, the episodes run the gamut from silly to shocking to emotional to inspirational, and they're mostly very good.

Duzyj's targets are welcomely eclectic and range so wildly that it's doubtful that anybody will already know all eight stories. Maybe somebody like backflipping French skating rebel Surya Bonaly (subject of "Judgement") or notorious British Open meltdown king Jean Van De Velde (subject of "The 72nd Hole") might feel more mainstream in certain circles, while there could be a whole different audience of Canadian curling aficionados who already know everything about Pat Ryan and The Hackner Double (subject of "Stone Cold") or Iditarod fanatics who already know everything there is to know about musher Aliy Zirkle (subject of "Aliy"). At least four of the installments were entirely or mostly new to me.

What is perhaps most lovely about the series is that as much as the subjects and their sports vary, the definitions of what constitutes "losing" and "winning" vary as well. The series mixes has-beens and never-weres with recognized legends. Surya Bonaly was a nine-time French champion and a five-time European champion, yet she doesn't feel out of place across the breadth of the series. Also varying are the ways they've moved past their failures, including everything from unexpected Hollywood success to rising from the ashes to revolutionizing their sports to finding a way to parlay failure into teachable and inspirational opportunities and platforms.

You shouldn't turn to Losers looking for people whose lives were ruined by adversity. Heaven knows that version of the series could exist and that there are plenty of stories like the tragedy of Angels reliever Donnie Moore, whose not wholly earned status as goat of a baseball playoff series may have contributed to (but probably didn't lead directly to) his subsequent suicide. This isn't that series. 

Here, all eight installments are driven by hope, even if the subjects occasionally slipped briefly (or extendedly) into depression, drugs or even darker situations. All eight documentaries are driven by interviews with the focal "loser," each introspective and reflective in a different way. They're all personal stories in which the world of sport is both backdrop and essential, with Duzyj taking pains to introduce more (and less) complicated fields to viewers when appropriate.

The animation, also directed and co-storyboarded by Duzyj, is a huge boon. It's a simple-yet-effective style that has shades of flash animation, shades of a retro video game aesthetic and manages to be unexpectedly versatile on its own. Without any wild deviations in look, Duzyj's approach is able to depict the madcap Bad News Bears-esque wackiness of a key game in the life of lower-tier British soccer club Torquay United (in "The Jaws of Victory") and then a harrowing life-or-death fight for survival in the desert of Morocco (in "Lost in the Desert"). Sometimes the animation subs in for footage fans are familiar with, as with Van De Velde's British Open 18th hole collapse, and sometimes it's a substitute for moments cameras never could have captured. Sometimes it's there as a rudimentary "explainer" and sometimes just for a needed pop of color. I generally enjoyed how it was utilized, as I generally enjoyed the series it anchors.

I laughed hard at the football pitch misadventures in "The Jaws of Victory," was a little shocked by the swell of emotions in the street basketball-centric "Black Jack" and found myself, not for the first time, getting actively angry at how the figure-skating establishment treated Bonaly throughout "Judgment." That's a good range of feelings.

Over this first season, Losers isn't without duds or disappointments. Boxer Michael Bentt's story in "The Miscast Champion" is a great one, but the episode is so brief and rushed as to make that story feel thin. Whatever the final theme or lesson of "Lost in the Desert" was support to be, it became lost and unfocused. There were a couple other episodes in which I felt like I was missing a major chunk of the desired "character" arc, which is the kind of thing that sometimes happens in documentary episodes ranging between 25 and 37 minutes. Even the better episodes don't overstay their welcome.

Time, as Beck once said, is a piece of wax falling on a termite, that's choking on the splinters. I have no idea what that has to do with anything, but I wanted to loop back to Mellow Gold. This new Netflix series is full of losers, baby, so why don't you learn from them?

Now available on Netflix.