There are different ways for docuseries to distinguish themselves. Some do it through interesting formal choices or new revelations about their subject matter. What elevates ESPN Films’ “The Last Dance,” premiering Sunday with two episodes and then running until May 17th, is its exhaustive level of detail and expertise. This is no mere piece of fan service. It is a stunningly refined and comprehensive look at the legacy and inner turmoil of one of the most essential sports teams of all time, the ‘90s Chicago Bulls, with input from every major player. We’ve all seen sports docs that throw up a few talking heads, self-proclaimed experts on a sport that they probably never played. But “The Last Dance” not only allows the major players from the Bulls of that era to tell their own story, but then supports those incredible athletes with an insane roster of interview subjects. It’s hard to imagine anyone said no. Not only does it include input from contemporaries like Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Isaiah Thomas, and so many more athletes, along with the key sports journalists of the time—it just drops in interviews from President Barack Obama and Bill Clinton almost like it’s showing off. After all, if you’re going to make a documentary series about one of the most beloved sports franchises of all time, you really should aim to jump as high as its star did every night he was on the court.
“The Last Dance” takes its name from what coach Phil Jackson actually put on the front of the playbook going into the ’97-’98 season. He had been told by Jerry Krause, the controversial General Manager who does not come off well here, that he could win 82 games and it would still be his last year. And so there was an unusual atmosphere around the club as they fought to end a dynasty with one more championship, and a film crew was given incredible access to that year. The doc of the same name focuses heavily on that tumultuous season, one that saw drama with nearly every player, but then it bounces back to detail on how the Bulls rose in the ‘80s and ‘90s to become one of the most popular franchises in the world. So it’s both about that final season and the entire path to get there.
Naturally, this means a lot of time with Michael Jordan. The controversial star is centered through every episode of “The Last Dance” that I’ve seen, but it should be noted that the production also gives reasonable time to his supporting cast, including detailed backgrounds and interviews with Scottie Pippen in episode two and Dennis Rodman in episode three. However, as it was then, and as it should be, this is the MJ show. Sure, it’s a documentary about the entire Chicago Bulls but it spends a majority of its time on Jordan’s private and public persona, and it really does get into all of it. At the start, I was worried that the fawning approach might let Jordan off the hook, but issues around his aggression, especially with young players, are addressed, as is the controversy over his lack of political presence. Jordan was one of the most powerful athletes in the world and he seemed to actively avoid any sort of cause that could be deemed political, although Obama himself offers some interesting insight here regarding the pressure that comes with Black success. And “The Last Dance” gets to the chapters about Jordan’s gambling and even his stint in the MLB. It’s all here.
That could really be the slogan for the entire series. “The Last Dance: It’s All Here.” I can’t imagine anyone walking away from this project and thinking it wasn’t as exhaustive as possible. It’s the kind of series wherein you’ll hear a player like Jordan or Pippen talk about a major game and mention something an opposing player did … and then you’ll hear from the opposing player. Every time I thought, “I wonder what so-and-so would say about that chapter in Bulls history,” I was presented with so-and-so. No stone is unturned. No interview wasn’t requested.
And that’s why people, especially those despondent over not getting to watch actual basketball right now, are going to eat this up. Most NBA fans will probably watch it more than once. It’s arguably a bit too long at ten hours, but the scope allows for the depth. So you can dig into those series with the Detroit Pistons and Phoenix Suns in ways we haven’t really seen before. It feels appropriate that the biggest star in the history of basketball would get the biggest doc about his sport to date. MJ wouldn't have accepted anything less.
Seven episodes screened for review. Premieres on ESPN on 4/19.