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Netflix’s Untold Returns with Four New Deep Dives into Sports History

Sports documentaries and docu-series are chasing the non-stop crime docuseries pipeline for streaming prominence over the last few years. There seems to be a new attempt to mimic ESPN’s critical and commercial success with “30 for 30” every month as people turn to television for sports more than anything else. The truth is that sports broadcasts outnumber all other kinds of content on television, and so finding related content to appeal to those viewers makes total sense. Most of them are talking-head puff pieces, promotional material for a professional sports season that you will probably watch anyway. However, there are some stand-outs. Netflix’s recent “Quarterback” is worth a look, and their consistently interesting “Untold” returns over the next four weeks with another quartet of sports tales to tell. Some of the documentaries—these really are feature films more than television episodes—from the first two seasons are among the best for sports docs. (I highly recommend “Malice in the Palace,” “Breaking Point,” and “Operation Flagrant Foul,” the latter of which is intriguing despite its limited POV.) 

The new season features stories on the Urban Meyer Era Florida Gators, Johnny Manziel, the BALCO scandal, and Jake Paul. It’s probably unintentional, but there’s a theme here: they’re all about “bad boys”—people like Meyer or Paul whose aggression became part of their brand and success. More than most seasons of “Untold,” it feels like a few punches are pulled this year with some natural follow-up questions ignored and some potential analysis saved for another documentarian. However, these are still all worth your time, whether you’re a sports fan or not. This series tackles sports from a different angle, trying to illuminate the human beings at the center of these massive stories.

Andrew Renzi was the director of “Pepsi, Where’s My Jet?” and “The Curse of Von Dutch: A Brand to Die For,” and so he knows a thing or two about branding, which is at the core of what has made Jake Paul a star. As much of a promoter as he is an athlete, Paul pivoted when his YouTube celebrity status fell apart to become a legitimate fighter. Stories of second chances are common in Hollywood, but Paul’s is more fascinating than most, and the access given to Renzi in “Jake Paul the Problem Child” makes it the best of the new season of “Untold.” It asks fascinating questions about the line between a professional athlete and a troublemaker, but the truth is that Paul gets people paying attention to a dying sport. There’s also a compelling dichotomy between a public persona that appears to take nothing seriously and an athlete who has trained himself into fighting shape. The film flirts with some issues related to potential abuse by Paul’s father that I wish had been unpacked further as to how that has shaped the young man’s life, but maybe he’s not ready for that yet. Jake Paul has been a Disney star, a massive internet phenomenon, and now he’s changing how people view professional boxing. Mike Tyson himself sums Paul up well when he says, “He’s not a villain; he’s an anti-hero.” You don’t have to like him, but you can’t ignore him.

The chapter of “Untold” likely to get the most attention is “Swamp Kings,” the only one this season that’s not feature-film length, unfolding over four television episodes. And what’s funny is it still reads like there’s way more story to tell here, given the vibrant personalities and issues regarding Urban Meyer’s coaching style that it arguably doesn’t take seriously enough. Florida Gators superstars like Tim Tebow comment on how seriously Meyer takes his work between scenes of him yelling and swearing at players in locker rooms, players who are often seen in extreme physical duress during workouts, and it feels like maybe there’s a version of this that questions Meyer’s choices a bit more. Meyer is placed a bit too high on a pedestal, especially given his recent flameout in the NFL, but what makes “Swamp Kings” work is the participation by the actual players like Tebow, Brandon Spikes, Brandon Siler, Major Wright, and Ahmad Black. When Meyer speaks, I question how much of it is public image manipulation. Still, one can sense the truth in Tebow’s regret over not winning another championship or hear Spikes’ joy when he speaks about Florida highlights. College football fans will eat it up.

They will also likely find a decent meal in “Johnny Football,” which pretty traditionally unpacks the story of Johnny Manziel, who went from Heisman Trophy winner to NFL flame-out in just a few years. Manziel is open in telling his story, but this chapter feels, well, told. Manziel’s saga unfolded in such a public eye that it’s hard to gain much insight into it, especially when it seems like the truth is that Johnny didn’t take the sport as seriously as some of his competition, openly admitting that it came easy to him ... until it didn’t. There’s a curious aspect of the Manziel story in that he seemed unprepared for stardom at such a young age—maybe there’s something to freshmen not being eligible for the Heisman—and maturity, which is often an over-used buzz word when assessing college athletes, actually applied here. Manziel is such a laid-back presence that anyone expecting a deep dive may be disappointed, but the most fascinating thing here might be that the saga of Johnny Football was pretty shallow.

Speaking of shallow, I’m not sure what to take from “Hall of Shame” other than Victor Conte is the kind of interview subject a documentarian adores. The founder of BALCO became an international figure when the steroid scandal exploded, taking down household names like Marion Jones and Barry Bonds. Conte is the kind of hustler who comes off like he believes what he’s saying, which includes the idea that he deserves a prominent place in sports history because of how he “helped” people break records and win medals. He’s startingly shameless until the final act, when he gets teary over his personal sacrifices, but even that is unexpected. Conte became a figure of public ridicule and feels bad for having done that to others less than the actual, you know, cheating. Some of the best stuff in “Hall of Shame” reveals how shoddy and rushed parts of this investigation were, leading to only four months behind bars for Conte. My favorite segment involved the response from authorities when Conte went on “20/20” and basically admitted to the crimes they were investigating. Like even the worst episodes of “Untold,” there are things to like here, even if we’re only being told part of this massive story.

All four chapters of “Untold” were screened for review. “Jake Paul the Problem Child” premieres August 1st, “Johnny Football” premieres August 8th, “Hall of Shame” premieres August 15th, and “Swamp Kings” premieres August 22nd.

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Managing Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and GQ, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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