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For many years, the pinnacle of sports coverage came from the iconic Sabol family's NFL Films, but we're now at a time when almost every sport has its own TV network, and the challenge is in delivering a story good enough to go with the enviable athletics and the explosive plays. Providing some indirect competition for ESPN's 30 for 30 series and HBO's Hard Knocks, Netflix's latest docu-series Last Chance U takes viewers not just onto the football field of the championship-ready East Mississippi Community College Lions, but deep into the lives of the troubled players and the dedicated educators and coaches that make the school unlike anywhere else in the country.
There's a good chance you've never heard of East Mississippi Community College, even though the Lions have won multiple junior college National Championships, but you will almost definitely know some of its alumni. The school's coach, Buddy Stephens, took it upon himself years ago to seek out outstanding athletes whose potential to shine was derailed by academic failures, troubles with law enforcement and other delinquent-related behavior. Some get their lives turned around and make the big time - there are currently 9 former EMCC athletes active in the NFL - while some aren't quite so lucky or determined, and Last Chance U takes a fly-on-the-wall approach in following some of the most recent recruits.
Friday Night Light fans will definitely find a lot of enjoy about Last Chance U, as this is much more of a character piece than it is your average football narrative. You meet a guy like D.J. Law, a running back seemingly primed for MVP awards, but instead of watching him constantly dancing around defenders, we see him trying to ignore a lifelong habit of dogging his education so that he can get the grades he needs to ship out to a more prominent Division 1 school. We watch the always smiling Ronald Ollie, who seems genuinely incapable of giving a shit about anything school-related that isn't football, despite attempts by the virtuous Brittany Wagner to help keep everyone on the team up to snuff in terms of grades and curriculum. Others, like the mega-talented John Franklin III, also allow different forms of selfishness to guide their actions.
Last Chance U is an extremely important project to come out right now. At a time when football players are held on a pedestal and scrutinized for everything they do - rightly so in cases involving domestic abuse and sexual assaults, among other criminal acts - Last Chance U is a beacon of hope for any hard-nosed kids who think that their previous bad choices will forever derail them, or for those who believe that nothing is held sacred in college and pro sports. For every Johnny Manziel who pisses away a golden ticket to stardom, there are many more who have to overcome extensive hardships, even those they've caused for themselves, to keep moving upward and onward. And East Mississippi Community College is a prime place to see that in earnest. With some people, anyway.
Directed by documentary filmmaker Greg Whiteley (New York Doll, Mitt), Last Chance U isn't a Disney tale or anything, in case I've made it sound too much like a heartwarming romp. In fact, there aren't a whole lot of fuzzy feelings at all in the early episodes, as viewers will likely find themselves harshly judging the decisions that a lot of these athletes are making in the face of possibly losing football from their lives. One watches these athletes bring passion to claims that they need to do what it takes, and then a few minutes later, they're getting in trouble for doing the same thing that landed them at EMCC in the first place. It boils one's blood at times.
When Coach Stephens wants someone on his team to do something, he has to scream at them with the fury of a thousand volcanoes, and his language is not meant for children's ears. After all, only part of this mission is to help these students reach adulthood with a sense of structure, while the other parts involve winning football games, and those two sides of him are exemplified best during a scene involving a phone call from former EMCC quarterback Chad Kelly, nephew of Buffalo Bills great Jim Kelly. And Stephens will win games, no matter whose feelings are hurt in the process.
Inspirational,motivational, and frequently infuriating, Last Chance U is a fascinating trip beyond the field and the locker room that dives into the gritty fabric of one of the country's most unpredictably successful sports programs. For my money, it's the most captivating sports programming in Netflix's original library, which includes documentaries The Battered Bastards of Baseball and The Short Game, and though it doesn't have the soapy drama of House of Cards or the fisticuffs of Daredevil, Last Chance U also stands tall against everything else Netflix has going. And at only six episodes, it's quicker than watching two football games.