When the first Last Chance U season premiered in 2016, it was easy to see what made the Netflix docuseries very good, but not necessarily what made it special. It required a little more time to see why and how Last Chance U has emerged as the most resilient and imitated sports reality franchise of the past decade.
What sets the Last Chance U franchise apart is its versatility. It’s been so long since it launched that it’s hard to remember that in the first two seasons, at East Mississippi Community College, the breakout star was an inspiring academic advisor. The next two seasons, at Independence Community College, were about a hot-headed coach (the initially entertaining, then infuriating Jason Brown) and the way Netflix fame can magnify the worst of personality traits. Producers (and ICC, actually) wisely fled Brown for the recent Laney College season, which shifted gears and became a show about urban gentrification and the role junior colleges can play in changing communities. Somewhere in the middle, Greg Whiteley and company left football behind entirely and, with Cheer, proved that the formula is completely transferable to other sports and to explorations of gender roles in athletics.
This is why the two least surprising elements of Netflix’s Last Chance U: Basketball are that the Last Chance U formula transfers to hoops without an iota of degradation and that this new incarnation becomes something simultaneously the same and very different from its predecessors. It’s one of 2021’s early standouts for all of the reasons you expect and a few you don’t see coming.
After the football crew spent the fall of 2019 in Oakland, Last Chance U heads down the California coast for this first basketball installment. It’s early 2020 and the East Los Angeles College (ELAC) basketball team is hoping to finally win the state championship. After several close calls, that title is the only achievement unobtained by coach John Mosley, who took over a moribund program and made them into perennial contenders. The ultra-intense coach feels that pressure.
With this group of Huskies, Mosley has the team to go all the way. It’s a group tailored for a championship and for the franchise’s focus on players for whom JUCO represents a second, third or last chance for a variety of reasons — some players harboring professional dreams, others wanting a Division 1 scholarship and still others simply hoping to get their lives on track. This cast is dominated by Joe Hampton, a former high school star and Penn State recruit whose personal descent included injuries, jail time and an attitude that could either inspire or poison all around him. There’s Deshaun Highler, a dropdown from UTEP, whose mourning of his recently deceased mother is fueling anger and sadness. There’s ultra-gifted Malik Muhammad, a center with all the potential in the world if he can just mature into it. There’s K.J. Allen, the team’s dominant superstar and the player most likely to eventually make the NBA, playing at this level because of academic struggles.
On a basic structural level, directors Greg Whiteley, Adam Leibowitz and Daniel George McDonald are able to stick within the Last Chance U formula: tightly wound authority figure in the middle, compassionate athlete profiles, breathtaking game action.
Mosley may be too Christian to swear — his faith plays an occasionally huge role in the season — but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t run exacting practices dominated by shouting, psychological manipulation and semi-regular histrionic breaking points. He’s a man of bluster — though less overtly threatening in that respect than some of his LCU predecessors — and a man of boundless compassion, standing by DeShaun in his grief and Joe through regular tirades. Joe, prone to long stretches of pouting and periodic locker-room blowups, will be a polarizing figure this season due to his astonishing talent, astonishingly bad attitude and general introspection. It’s easier to quickly embrace Deshaun, a master of in-game trash talk and a volatile personality capable of becoming a self-described “super-villain” at a moment’s notice. It’s a good roster of “characters,” so much so that a season I initially worried might feel padded at eight episodes could easily have supported 10 (though kudos for restraint).
When it comes to game action, it turns out that there are several reasons basketball is even better suited for this format than football was. Without helmets or masks, it’s a sport where emotions are on full display and it’s also a sport that allows closer camera access, especially for a team that doesn’t play in a cavernous arena packed with fans. Add in that basketball teams simply play more games and that means that Last Chance U: Basketball has more and more intimate sports action than its predecessors, delivered with the usual propulsive sense of in-game momentum.
The East LA College team may, on paper, actually be too good and that forces both Mosley and the filmmakers to obsess about types of adversity that can’t be measured in wins and losses. They delve deeply into “team chemistry” in a way that climaxes in a great, surprisingly hilarious episode spent mainly on a wilderness retreat. But it takes only limited awareness to look at the season’s timetable and realize that ELAC’s greatest obstacle might come from real-world events, something that hasn’t really played a role in past seasons. The plight of student-athletes caught up in the COVID sprint was part of the postscript to the Laney season, but here it adds touching layers to the “last chance” in the title.
That ability to integrate such big topical headlines — COVID, but also other Spring 2020 tragedies — into the season just points again to how well Whiteley and his crack crew have built this franchise. The question is no longer whether Last Chance U is adaptable for new colleges or new sports, but rather how many places the producers want to go. Baseball? Women’s soccer? Bring it on.
Premieres Wednesday, March 10, on Netflix.