'We Are: The Brooklyn Saints': TV Review

We Are The Brooklyn Saints
The personalities engage, even when the football doesn't.

Netflix, the service behind 'Last Chance U,' goes to Brooklyn for a different look at young football players trying to use the game to carve out new opportunities.

Next to my couch, I have one of those workplace safety tally boards reading "Days Since the Last Docuseries About the Trials and Tribulations of Amateur Football." It's time to set the count back to "0."

I mean, I don't actually have one of those workplace safety tally boards, but if I did, it would have reflected the time elapsed since the November premieres of HBO's The Cost of Winning and CBS All Access' Texas 6 — a gap of almost exactly two months that ends with the arrival of Netflix's We Are: The Brooklyn Saints. It's the equivalent of a Russian nesting doll or a Twitter thread, one that connects similar shows — starting with Netflix's Last Chance U — using a similar formula to capture how for some young men in some communities, football remains a path to escape or safety, an alternative to gangs or ennui, opening a potential door for affordable advanced education and, in the rarest of cases, NFL millions. These shows all tackle conversations about malleable young bodies and minds, imperfect authority figures and the cost or benefit of chasing a dream that is, to put it kindly, statistically improbable.

Of the entries in this genre (one that I may be the only person watching every permutation of), We Are: The Brooklyn Saints, from director Rudy Valdez and the Imagine Documentaries team including Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, probably most closely resembles Starz's Warriors of Liberty City, with its focus on what is basically a recreational league for kids ages seven to 13 in Brooklyn. This is not the Brooklyn of artisanal butcher shops and ice cubes, the hipster paradise of marijuana couriers and fresh-out-of-college young folks looking to become the voices of their generation. This is un-gentrified Brooklyn, and the perception that the organizers of the Saints want to give is that without this league, the alternatives for kids are scary and dangerous. But for his part, Valdez chooses not to wallow in what's threatening about the neighborhood or the community, the assumption being that you know what that looks like; this series is focused on the hope.

The Saints program is divided into three teams based on age, but Valdez seemingly only had access to players in the younger age group and the older age group. The older team is really bad, for reasons that I don't completely understand. Maybe the middle group was as well? Yet somehow the younger group is consistently competing for national championships in Florida. There are many problems of focus in We Are: The Brooklyn Saints, problems that probably won't matter to everybody, especially to audiences that aren't devotees of the genre. I would say that We Are: The Brooklyn Saints is probably the worst of the recent genre if your investment is in football, but it's quite solid if your investment is in people.

On the football side, Valdez and his group of cinematographers actually do have astonishing on-field access, with the camera practically embedding in the huddle on some plays. Youth football can be a disorienting series of unexplainable cutbacks and strategy-free scrums, and for reasons of safety and common sense no college or even high-school team would ever let a crew get this close to the action. You won't watch this series and come away with an understanding of in-game momentum, play-calling or any of the league's practical realities — how anything is funded, whether or not the Florida "national championship" is based on merit, etc. Maybe that's for the best, because the more questions you ask, the more you might be bothered by watching small kids participating in hard-contact practice drills or disturbed by how casually the series and all the adults treat one very clearly concussed boy after a helmet-on-helmet collision.

But as anybody who watched Valdez's documentary debut The Sentence knows, his interests are concentrated much more on the emotional than the practical.

The series, only four episodes and none longer than 50 minutes, works because you latch onto a lot of the "characters" immediately. Ultimately, the documentary really only concentrates on three of the players, but they're all winners and the series does a great job of featuring their world outside of football. There's D-Lo, a nine-year-old quarterback on the lowest age group squad, and also an intuitive piano player. There's Kenan, frustrated leader of the struggling oldest team, but a passionate robotics enthusiast in his free time. And there's Aiden, who has to drive 50 miles every morning and evening with his father, and who has the candid precociousness of an instantly beloved sitcom character. Again, does it matter that the focal kids don't all feature meaningfully in the "football" part of the story? Nah. I can't tell you anything Aiden does on the field, but he has an older brother playing high school football, so we know how it matters to the family.

If you know the genre, especially the middle Last Chance U seasons that were mostly Coach Brown swearing at players and making them cry, you might be nervous about the series' stern authority figures. Fortunately, that's not what We Are: The Brooklyn Saints is about. There's plenty of crying, because these are children, but the coaches and present parents are all encouraging and upstanding and Coach Gawuala, recipient of the most screen time beyond the main players, is devoted, high-energy and encourages his players to believe that having fun is the most important thing. Does that run a little contrary to the introductory message that there are life-and-death stakes in this part of Brooklyn? Yes. Either you're telling the kids that having fun is everything or you're telling the kids that football is the only way they can ever escape poverty, crime and decay.

Never mind that. We Are: The Brooklyn Saints doesn't always make logical "sense" and it sometimes likes the eager chaos around football more than football itself. But it doesn't lack for heartwarming moments and underdog sports excitement and in that in-between week before the Super Bowl, it's an opportunity to scratch that pigskin itch without giving in to the hype of the Big Game.

Premieres Friday, January 29, on Netflix