While many viewers like to believe that documentary crews are invisible and unobtrusive presences that merely film something real and present it uninflected to the world, I’m a sucker for the observer effect in nonfiction storytelling. If you appreciate the candor of an unscripted series acknowledging that the process of observing a phenomenon can impact the phenomenon itself, I recommend the new season of Netflix’s Last Chance U.
Probably as self-reflexive as this franchise can stand to become, the fourth Last Chance U season maintains its surface focus on Coach Jason Brown’s developing football program at Kansas’ Independence Community College. But it’s really more focused on how polarizing Coach Brown and his team were in the show’s third season, the pros and cons of that sort of warts-and-all exposure and just how little room you have for adversity under this sort of intense microscope.
Or, as Coach Brown puts it himself, “Last Chance U season four should be called ‘Shit Show.'”
In the third season, we watched the blustery Coach Brown bully and badger his team of highly recruited second chancers to a level of success unprecedented at ICC. Was Coach Brown a brilliant motivator and inspirer of young men or an abusive charlatan whose unquestionably gifted roster succeeded on their own merits, and thanks to the nurturing of more temperate assistant coaches, in a way nobody could ever reproduce? Was Coach Brown building a program from the ground up with a foundation for the future or did he stumble into transitory greatness, destined to flame out just as fast?
One thing that’s instantly clear in the new Last Chance U season is that if you expected Coach Brown to have watched his first round of episodes and come to any zen introspection about his temper, word choices or inspirational tactics, the more fool you.
“You can say what you want, but I’m never gonna change,” Coach Brown declares in the first five minutes of the premiere. If he’s not introspective enough to aspire to personal betterment, you can be sure that Coach Brown isn’t going to be thoughtful enough to recognize the irony of an attitude like that on a show whose title and entire ethos are built around rising to the opportunity to become better than your flawed reputation, to learn from your worst moments.
Expectations are high at ICC after the team’s 2017 performance and with a combination of familiar figures from last season and new Division 1 bounceback players. Leading the squad is Jay Jones, a dual-threat quarterback looking for a fresh start after a disenchanting year at Georgia Tech. Other featured “characters” include wide receiver Markiese King, Kansas-raised Chance Main and Kailon Davis, a defensive lineman with a million dollar smile. Bobby Bruce, whose myriad fifth and sixth and seventh chances were crucial to the third season, is back, and just when you thought you were done with underwhelming Florida State cast-off Malik Henry, it almost immediately becomes clear that this ICC team isn’t going to be satisfied with simply the three QBs on its roster. This sets in motion a season of expectations versus reality and reality impacted by the visibility enabled by a Netflix platform. Everybody wants to come after the king, and Coach Brown is the king as surely as he’s also a fool.
The season, then, is all about ripples from last season. It’s about a town that went to a lot of effort to welcome Coach Brown and his confrontational approach coming to terms with the consequences of this deal with the Devil. It’s about people now expecting Coach Brown’s outbursts and his inconsistent approaches to star players. It’s about other coaches and teams knowing what was said about them on Netflix last season and responding in mature and immature ways. It’s about Coach Brown accepting criticisms online with mockery and accepting compliments with somewhat perplexed amazement. In moments of occasional heroism, it’s about the teachers determined to do right by these kids and to stick by them in the classroom no matter their circumstances on the field.
And the payoffs aren’t always taking place on the field in these eight episodes. In fact, I was frequently struck by how often the football highlights this season involved players who didn’t interact with the filmmakers at all, which may have been one of the intended takeaways, since those were also the players who had the fewest dramatic interactions with Coach Brown.
The eight-episode season was directed by executive producer Greg Whiteley and, making a big leap up the credits, Luke Lorentzen. Some of the show’s rhythms are becoming slightly familiar, like the inevitability that a player who gets episodic backstory and muses out-loud about concussion protocol or the abrupt violence of the game is only seconds away from an injury. The show’s foreshadowing isn’t always smooth, but it’s effective and lulls you into thinking you know every episode’s shape, making the fourth, fifth and sixth episodes, which break from format, into standouts. Even if you know how last fall went for ICC, and Last Chance U made ICC into easily the most publicized JUCO program in the country, Whiteley and Lorentzen have focused on a likable group of players and, in lieu of excitement within the program, they’re happy to confront viewers with their own initial reactions to Coach Brown and his skills as a coach.
I was fascinated by watching the enthusiasm of the third season turn in on itself, but I also don’t need to ever spend another second with Coach Brown. The two seasons at Independence Community College followed two seasons at East Mississippi Community College, seasons that kept the focus more successfully on the players and the program. When this show is locked in — and episodes four through six are top-notch on all levels — it’s such a pleasure to watch, but I hope Whiteley and company are able to extricate themselves from Coach Brown’s gravity and find a new place to film for the next season. Hopefully they get those contracts signed quickly, before these episodes can be used as a cautionary tale.
Premieres: Friday (Netflix)