The Last Dance with Last Chance U

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Netflix rolled out its final and, for my money, best season of docuseries Last Chance U. last week, to a surprisingly muted reaction in the corners of social media I inhabit. The series also has not appeared on the daily Top 10 on my Netflix homepage.

Lest I be one of those journos who relies on myopic anecdotes to project a broader argument, I investigated PC Mag’s breakdown of the most streamed shows in the past week: No Last Chance U. Newsweek chronicled the most-streamed Netflix programs in the month of July, when Last Chance U. launched. No dice.

A shame, really. Perhaps some of the subdued reception reflects the larger overall disappointment with our national mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic likely killing the 2020 college football season. While for me Last Chance U. offers a fix, I can see how it might be a painful reminder of what we’re likely to lose.

Nevertheless, I recommend the newest Last Chance U. to anyone who loves college football or documentaries. The show is wrapping up on a high.

Season 5’s move to Laney College in Oakland showcases another winning JUCO program, as Seasons 1 and 2 had at East Mississippi and Season 3 at Independence. But without a bevy of former Power Five talent, like that which populated the EMCC and ICC rosters, Laney features more under-the-radar players.

To that end, Laney is less Last Chance U. and more Only Chance U. The program doesn’t suffer from the same delusions of grandeur projected in the first four seasons.

In the case of Seasons 1 and 2 at EMCC, that attitude at least furthered the narrative. Buddy Stephens lording over a Cosplay SEC program balanced with the rampant poverty of Scooba and the oftentimes trying backgrounds of Lions players in a way that underscored a consistent issue throughout big-time college football.

Seasons 3 and 4 lack the same coherent focus. The first episode of the third season opens with interviews from Independence, Kansas locals lamenting the deterioration of small-town America. The ensuing two years with the Independence Pirates work as a commentary in a greater, social context, with ICC president Daniel Barwick naively believing he can reverse the town’s decades-long decline due to deeply rooted systemic issues by entrusting a loudmouthed charlatan.

But while there’s a worthwhile commentary to be extracted from the ICC seasons of Last Chance U., coach Jason Brown made them an absolute drain to watch. @scott_m_hirsch on Twitter offered the best summary of the Independence years when he called Brown, “Jason Exotic.”

The reference to another Netflix docuseries isn’t just a perfectly succinct description of Brown’s shameless jackassery, but also functions as a reminder that documentaries should be viewed with a healthy skepticism. The below from YouTuber Quinton Reviews delves into this further.

hated Tiger King. I also watched it in its entirety, not wanting the cultural zeitgeist to leave me behind. While I could blame the downtime the early days of quarantine left me with no NCAA Tournament to cover or NBA to enjoy, truth is that Tiger King proved entertaining in an uncomfortable way. It begins with the same tone I imagine an episode of King of the Hill might have if Dale Gribble had ever acquired a zoo.

But as the series progresses, and more of Joe Exotic’s transgressions surface, Tiger King transitions from exasperating sideshow to an uncomfortable psychological examination. The tonal shift may be intentional, but left it me wondering why the filmmakers committed so much time to establishing Joe Exotic as a protagonist.

Last Chance U. Seasons 3 and 4 are similar in that the central figure becomes increasingly overbearing and soul-sucking. Season 5 is enjoyable in part because of how much more normal coach John Beam is than Brown or Stephens.

That isn’t to say Last Chance U. Season 5 doesn’t address heavy issues — it does, and more effectively than any of the previous seasons. The ongoing gentrification and real-estate speculation along the California coast is fast becoming a crisis, and the Bay Area is its epicenter.

Dior Walker-Scott’s backstory communicates the crisis in plain terms. Walker-Scott also functions as the season’s moral center — and the chronicling of his experiences as a college football player are the best and most touching portrayals of an athlete in a documentary since Arthur Agree in the landmark film, Hoop Dreams.

The season is worth watching if only for Dior’s story alone, but the entire series hits the right note throughout.

It’s unfortunate this marks the end of Last Chance U. on the gridiron– though it’s appropriate with there likely being no college football season to chronicle in 2020. Season 6 moves to basketball.

As the football docuseries winds down, however, I do wonder where the genre goes from here. Despite the understated buzz for Last Chance U., the popularity of ESPN’s The Last Dance speaks to the audience that very much exists for this kind of sports content.

COVID-19 and the dearth of sports have exposed the absurdity of the tired daytime debate format. ESPN, FS1, NBC Sports, CBS Sports; any of the cable sports networks would benefit finding the next Last Chance U.