July 28 is a date that had been pencilled into my diary for a very long time, well it’s been there since Netflix helpfully sent me (and I presume a lot of other people) the trailer for the new season of Last Chance U. You see Last Chance U is my favourite type of Netflix programme, the docuseries, a genre which Netflix has taken to new heights. In fact I was going to write about my Top 5 Netflix docuseries but found that I had so much to say about Last Chance U that it will have to wait, sorry The Last Dance and Tiger King!
Last Chance U – Now in its 5th season, Last Chance U explores the gritty world of junior college football in the USA. Now we will all be aware of the high profile US third level institutions such as Harvard, Princeton, Yale and MIT and most people will have heard of the big US sporting colleges such as Auburn, Notre Dame, Boston College, Clemson, LSU and Ohio State, but I was completely unaware of a second tier of colleges in the USA called Junior Colleges (often referred to as community colleges) or JUCO for short. Last Chance U shines the spotlight on the american football teams and the surrounding drama in these Junior Colleges.
In the first season we are transported to Scooba, Mississippi, never heard of it, me neither and I’d say that goes for 99% of the people who don’t live within a 20 mile radius of the place. But Scooba is the home of the East Mississippi Lions, serial national champions and the most successful JUCO football team. In the middle of this tiny town of 732 people is a state of the art football stadium, all because of the sponsorship generated by the college’s sports programme. In fact the commercialisation of learning is one of the many themes explored throughout the series e.g. how can a small college afford a high tech, modern training facility but struggle to pay its teachers / professors? From Scooba, we are then transported to Independence, Kansas to take a look at the pressures associated with a less successful outfit and the new series leaves rural america behind as we head to Laney College in Oakland. Each college team has a larger than life head-coach who is full of Al Pacino “Any Given Sunday” type speeches but with a lot more swearing. Notably as the seasons have progressed and locations have changed the head coaches chosen have become a lot more likeable from the class A bully who gets results (Scooba seasons 1&2), to the loudmouth with the heart of gold (Independence seasons 3&4) to the straight talking local legend (Laney season 5). These alpha male types are off-set by prominent female teachers / guidance counsellors who provide the nurturing for these men-children looking to find their way in life. Not surprisingly, it is these heroines who get most of the plaudits from fans of the show.
You see the players who end up in JUCO are not your clean-cut Tommy Hilfiger types. They are typically from underprivileged (and in a large part african american) backgrounds or have been kicked back down from the division one colleges due to injuries or anti-social behaviour. For me the most interesting part of this series is how it explores the predominantly bleak backgrounds of these students / players in a tender yet realistic manner. A large portion of the show is spent interviewing family and friends to get a complete picture of where each individual player is coming from. The programme makers also get significant access to the players themselves and have obviously taken the time to build up a significant level of trust. So when the running-back opens up about his dysfunctional relationship with his father (another recurring theme throughout the show) it feels genuine and heartfelt. Behind all this is the knowledge that if success is not achieved on the football pitch (potentially leading to a scholarship at a division one college and for the exceptional, the NFL after that), then there is not a lot to fall back on (minimum wage in Walmart and a complete absence of a functioning social welfare system). In fact we learn in a follow-up programme that one of the players / students from East Mississippi ends up on murder charges relating to a drug deal gone wrong. Last Chance U also shines a light on the state of the general US education system where students can arrive at third level without the basics of reading, writing and math(s). The American Dream is for the large part noticeably absent.
Of course each episode is shot expertly with close-ups of agonised players’ faces contrasted with long shots of their surroundings (rural or urban), the music is excellent and everything builds towards the climactic episode ending which is the weekly match. It’s Friday Night Lights but it’s for real, even if you often get the feeling that it could be scripted, so yes the guy complaining about headaches beforehand is going to get hit high and could be concussed (the lack of head injury protocols is another noticeable factor) and the last minute replacement quarter-back is going to have a barnstorming match. But unlike a scripted drama, the featured teams don’t always win and in fact the season where Independence end up with a losing record is probably the most interesting, not least for the fact that the head coach keeps on firing his coaching staff in order to deflect blame from himself. He eventually ends up being fired himself for referring to a German player (what was he doing playing American football) as “the new Hitler”, although in reality this was probably just an excuse to get rid of someone whose ego had outgrown his surroundings.
I’m only halfway through the current (and last, wipes a tear from my eye) season and there is definitely a change of tone. This is principally due to the fact that the head coach seems to have an awareness of his duty towards the mental health of his players / students. That’s not to say that there isn’t plenty of swearing and shouting from the sidelines (similar to that heard at a Junior A match in your local GAA club), it’s just that defeats are not the end of the world.
So if you want to learn about the real USA I would strongly recommend watching this programme and if (like me) you also a sucker for coming of age, redemption tales with a sporting angle then Last Chance U is definitely one for you.