Netflix has an amazing ability to find successful properties and vary them just enough to create their version of a known hit. And I don’t mean that derogatorily at all. It’s what’s put them on the map in that they can take elements of the “HBO drama” and the “SyFy drama” and so on and so on. They can be not just one network, but bits and pieces of all the networks. “Friday Night Lights” may have never aired as a docu-series on a network, but it started life as a non-fiction book (a masterful one by Buzz Bissinger) and was then adapted into a beloved drama on NBC. It’s not a stretch to say that Netflix’s new docu-series “Last Chance U” is their variation on “FNL” in the way it captures a part of the country in which football isn’t just a sport or a hobby or something people watch—it’s a religion. It’s a way of life. And the Church of the Pigskin captured in Netflix’s series is a fascinating one. It’s a place in which kids who have burned out at other schools or simply never fit in anywhere else come to figure out what’s next for them. Do they still have a future in football? It turns out that many of them do, and those futures come after a lot of winning in a place where nothing is more important than the touchdown.
Greg Whiteley (“Mitt”) adopts a very observational style with “Last Chance U,” clearly gravitating to certain arcs/stories that come about organically in the time he spends at East Mississippi Community College. In Scooba, MS (pop. 712), the EMCC Lions are Gods. They have won three of the last four championships at their level, going for a fifth when the show/season begins. In fact, they’re coming off a 24-game winning streak, decimating opponents to such a brutal degree that their coach has often been accused of cruelly running up the score. The Rex Ryan-esque Buddy Stephens is not the kind of guy who cares about how the opponent feels when they lose by 85. His only focus is to win, and if you have to crush to win, so be it.
Stephens is a fascinating-enough character, but Whiteley and his team don’t just concentrate on the coaching staff, they spend even more time with the student-players, a balance that's more delicate here than at other schools. A lot of the EMCC players were once courted by or even at high-profile schools but couldn’t handle the academic or behavioral requirements, and so essentially dropped down to “Last Chance U.” So, if they don’t get the grades this time, or they get caught violating rules, they’re out of chances. We meet a fascinating counselor/mentor who helps guide the students away from their own demons. A single mother, she’s the kind of person who talks about how she never envisioned being at this place or this job but that she’s always tried to be someone who merely wants to be where they can do the most good. And she’s doing that. I’d watch a whole series about her.
But then I’d miss Ronald Ollie, a larger-than-life defensive tackle who clearly has the potential for greatness. That’s the dramatic heft of the people we meet in “Last Chance U.” Football fans can instantly see the potential in a player like Ollie or RB DJ Law, but will they keep their act together long enough and concentrate hard enough on their sport for that talent to matter? Most people who play football, on any level, don’t end up doing it for a living. How do you balance the game that you’ve played and loved since a child with the obligation to become an adult? That’s the question that hums through “Last Chance U,” and the show is cleverly structured in the way that it devotes the final act of at least the two episodes I’ve seen to that week’s game.
Having not seen the final four, I feel a bit disadvantaged as to the quality of the series overall, and I'm curious to see how Whiteley and his team continue to develop "story" by focusing on certain arcs. The fact is this football fan was engaged by the two I’ve seen, and I'm ready to take the trip down to Scooba, MS again this Friday.