It’s not just about American Football. Last Chance U is back and you should watch it!

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.

My top 5 Netflix Drama & Comedy Series

A couple of weeks ago I did my top 5 Netflix movies so as a companion piece, here are my Top 5 Netflix drama series (doesn’t include documentaries / docu-series such as Tiger King and The Last Dance which will form part of my next list, *warning* writing lists can become addictive) if you have a few weeks to spare now that your summer holiday plans lie in tatters!

Ozark (3 seasons of 10 episodes, 50 mins per episode). For those of you with a Breaking Bad shaped hole in your lives, this is the perfect filler. Taking the formula of mild-mannered guy gets himself into a Mexican drug-cartel shaped mess, Ozark tells the story of Marty Byrd and family who are abruptly forced to leave their cosy life in Chicago and move to the Ozarks in mid-west America. If like me you had never heard of the Ozarks, it is a geographic region in mid-west America, specifically Missouri, Arkansas and Oklahoma. In particular the series takes place around the lakes and waterways that were created when the US government dammed a number of rivers in the area. This widespread damming created more waterfront than the entire coast of California and a whole tourism industry has grown up around it, with added red-necks and hillbillies (apparently there is a difference between the two as a Mexican drug lord finds out to his cost) to spice things up. Throughout the series, Marty is continually tasked with laundering a significant amount of drug money and is forever just short of his target, looking for one last piece of risky business to get his family’s heads above water. I really enjoyed the tight plot-lines, the consistent menace of the setting and the strong performances. Laura Linney is truly excellent as Wendy Byrd but the show really hinges on Jason Bateman (the aforementioned Marty) and whether you are able to wipe his Arrested Development heritage from your mind. Initially I struggled with this (and I know some who never got over it) but just like Bryan Cranston who was once the goofy dad in Malcolm in the Middle but will forever be Walter White, in my mind Bateman has made the tricky transition to serious actor! The series also has the added bonus of knocking off characters without warning (much like Game of Thrones) which always keeps you on your toes!

Community (6 seasons made up of 110 episodes in total, c. 25 mins per episode). For those of you looking for something lighter, this comedy series set in a US community college (a type of interim step between high school and university) could be your thing. The plot centres around Jeff, a disbarred lawyer who is seeking a legitimate legal degree, who sets up a study group so that he can spend more time with his object of affection. And thus our core gang of misfits is formed, ranging from Annie (Alison Brie of Mad Men fame) the young, anxious over-achiever to Pierce (Chevy Chase), a retired millionaire who enrolls out of boredom. I was drawn to it originally by Chevy Chase’s involvement (Fletch remains one of my guilty pleasures) but quickly realised that the joy in the programme came from the verbal sparring between the mismatched study group including constant pop-culture references and parodies. For example there is a recurring gag involving a holo-deck (taken from Star Trek the Next Generation) and a paint-ball episode which parodies The Matrix, Rambo and the movies of John Woo. The real clincher for me was the episode where the study group have to play themselves as characters in a platform video game, which in fact is a recurring dream of mine!

Maniac (1 season of 10 episodes, 26-47 mins per episode): I know this one is going to be marmite, you either love it or you hate it. For me, I definitely hate marmite but I absolutely loved this wacky show. Originally a Norwegian series (which probably explains some of its wackiness), Maniac is set in an alternate near-future (which looks very much like a 1980’s version of the future) and follows Owen (Jonah Hill) and Annie (the excellent Emma Stone) as people with “issues” who get involved in pharmaceutical trials for a mind-bending drug which purports to cure all mental disorders. Still with me? The joy of this series is in the dream-like sequences when Owen and Annie are brought under by the drug testing. If like-me you enjoy the juxtaposition of a scene involving a magician’s seance in 1940’s America with a fantasy quest involving elves, then this is one for you. These scenes enable our two main characters to explore and heal their pain. Back in the present / near future there is a self-aware, psychotic yet melancholic computer in charge of the whole process. Some people viewed it as a big mess, I just thought it was a wonderful mix of ideas brought to life by excellent performances by Stone, Hill and a strong supporting cast including Gabriel Byrne, Justin Theroux and Sally Field.

Stranger Things (3 seasons made up of 24 episodes, 45-70 mins per episode): Okay so you’ve probably already made up your mind about this one and you’ve either (a) binge-watched it as soon as it was released and are constantly scanning the internet for details about season 4, (damn you covid-19 for delaying its production) or (b) you can’t understand all the fuss about this 80’s nostalgia filled, science fiction horror romp. Well in the unlikely event you are not in one of these camps, I urge you to give it a try. As someone who tends to watch anything with even the slightest element of horror / shock through my fingers or preferably behind the couch, I was a late convert to this series with very scary monsters. Eventually my love of all things 80’s overcame the knots in my stomach and I soon became a fan. The series centres on the rural town of Hawkins, Indiana and investigates how the weird and not so wonderful experiments taking place in the local National Laboratory spill over into the lives of the residents with horrific consequences. In particular how a group of school friends who appear to have been taken straight from the set of ET befriend a mysterious girl with psychic abilities and repeatedly overcome the odds to save the day. The series is full of tension, has wonderful music, brilliantly explores the joys of childhood and has kids dressed up as Ghostbusters, what’s not to like!

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (14 seasons made up of 154 episodes, 20-25 mins per episode): This one may not be to everybody’s taste, indeed whenever I watch it Niki (my wife) will say “you’re not watching those horrible people doing horrible things to each other again!” and I must admit the first season is a bit rough (production values dramatically increase once Danny DeVito comes on board in season two). But having said all that, I can honestly declare that this is the programme that has given me the most belly laughs in my adult life. The series follows a gang of five narcissistic, unethical and not very clever friends who run an Irish bar (named “Paddy’s Pub” of course) in south Philadelphia. Most episodes detail how one of the gang comes up with a get rich quick scheme which from the outset is obviously not going to work. As the episode plays out it will involve some form of humiliation (self-humiliation in most cases but can also be directed towards another member of the gang) like when Dee (the only female in the gang) and Frank (her father played by Devito) pretend to get married in order to get their hands on some inheritance money and how low they will stoop to make this con believable. Some say the series is a metaphor for how ignorant America has become. I just like the corny gags, for example when Charlie gets drunk staking out a rival pub he is amazed and impressed that the pub has a room where pirates live, the door is clearly marked “private”. Well I laughed and I hope you will too!

That’s my Top 5 picks and I hope you give them a go, if they are not to your taste there is always Modern Family and Suits, they are quite good also!

 

 

My Top 5 Netflix Movies

The television has always been my friend (I remember the arrival of Channel 4 like the birth of a new sibling) but never more so than in the past few months. Whether it is sitting down with the kids after a hard day home-schooling, or relaxing with Niki after the exhausting bedtime routine is completed, or just kicking back for some escapism / nostalgia on my own away from the harsh realities of the outside world, the TV and in particular Netflix has been my lifeboat in the icy waters of the real world as the Titanic heads towards the depths. So without further ado here are the 5 Netflix movies that have kept my head above water over the past three months.

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. A triumphant celebration of the possibilities of youth, particularly when you have access to a high powered automobile! John Hughes’ masterpiece has its own particular resonance for yours truly. More years ago than I care to remember, I was brought to see Ferris as my special confirmation day treat. There was only one problem, for some reason the Irish film censor (a notoriously contrary fellow who previously denied us Irish folk “The Life of Brian”) had categorised the movie as 15 rather than PG 12 (from a quick bit of research I see that it has been re-categorised as PG 12 in the past 35 years which makes my sense of injustice even stronger). This meant that despite the fact that my parents had already seen the movie and were quite happy for me to enjoy its delights, the staff at the Adelphi Dublin were not so obliging. I had to wait until it came out on VHS before getting a glimpse of that red Ferrari. Boy was it worth the wait. I watched it again with the kids when it came out on Netflix and I remain baffled by the original rating but hey, the Adelphi is long gone so who is laughing now!! Anyway the movie about a charismatic teenager playing truant hits all the right notes (i) a super musical number involving a parade and the Beatles, (ii) a truly excellent villain in dean of students Ed Rooney (with special mention to the maitre d’ at the snooty restaurant) (iii) a life affirming themes which although a bit schmaltzy at times still leaves a warm glow all these years later and (iv) a great soundtrack which is well worth a listen. The movie is also a great advert for Chicago which remains on my list of places to visit, not sure I’ll ever get to drive that Ferrari though!

Groundhog Day. First of all let me state that I’m a big Bill Murray fan and this list could very easily have turned into a Top 5 of his movies. In the end I had to settle for just two, with this tale of a man having to re-live the same day over and over again getting the nod as one of my choices due to Murray’s immaculate comedic performance, even by his standards. For me Murray’s ability to perfectly blend blatant selfishness with charm is what sets him apart, well that and his comic timing. Frequently you hear of stories where he rips up the script and will ask the director (in this case his Ghostbusters’ co-star Harold Ramis) how he wants the scene to work and then takes it from there. In this tale, set in rural Pennsylvania, we are introduced to the groundhog (a type of squirrel who doesn’t climb) which can predict the weather and the annual ceremony associated with this (always reminds me of Dorothy meeting the elders in Munchkinland). Although the reasons why Phil (BM’s charachter) is stuck in this time-loop are never made explicit, it is clear that he is going through some type of purgatory where he initially uses this knowledge for self-advancement before coming to the realisation that this ego-centric behaviour is ultimately unfulfilling. What makes the movie stand out for me is the number of wonderful set-piece sequences, in particular the progression with old college friend Ned Ryerson, the restaurant scene where he recites French poetry (actually a song by Jacques Brel, as someone who studied Jacques Brel and French poetry in college, I appreciated this) to impress Andie McDowell and not forgetting the slightly darker but still hilarious multiple suicide attempts! Even the ending which does have a saccharine sweet element to it manages to hold the tone of the rest of the movie thanks to Murray’s delivery. I could watch this one again and again and again and again!

Lost in Translation. Again this one has some personal relevance for me. I watched Sofia Coppola’s masterpiece in San Francisco while I was travelling home from a year in Australia. Like the protagonist in this movie, I was thousand of miles from friends and family and while San Fran isn’t exactly Tokyo in terms of a clash of eastern and western cultures, it is definitely not leafy Clontarf on a drizzly day. The movie tells the story of Bob Harris (a toned down Bill Murray giving a career best performance) and Charlotte (Scarlett Johansson before she became mega famous) while they are both staying at the same hotel in Tokyo. The whirling music and the sweeping cinematography perfectly capture the dream-like quality of being all alone in a strange land. There are enough pieces of comedy from Murray to keep his die hard fans happy, such as the scene where he gets trapped on a runaway cross-fit machine and the interactions with the whisky advert director (on the rare occasions where I drink whisky I still feel obliged to say “for relaxing times make it suntory time”). However it is ultimately a love story with some beautifully tender moments between the main protagonists, particularly in the karaoke bar where both Johansson and Murray excel using their varying vocal talents. Interestingly, when I first watched the movie I had more in common with Charlotte whereas when I watched it recently, I was definitely more aligned with Murray’s character (obviously without the marital infidelity). A great movie to watch when you want to drift away to somewhere different.

Marriage Story. So what happens when Kylo Ren and Black Widow decide to get married!? Well you get a bittersweet story of how even seemingly good relationships can go wrong! Seriously though, it did take a bit of time for me to get used to Adam Driver in his non-Star Wars role but once I got over the fact that he couldn’t move things with his mind, I really enjoyed his performance. In fact this movie is full of strong acting performances with Laura Dern well deserving of her Oscar as the street-smart divorce lawyer. There is also Julie Hegarty (of Airplane fame) adding comic relief as Scarlett Johansson’s mother. The plot is not an unfamiliar one with the successful male being gradually eclipsed by his aspiring actress female partner and how this shift in power exposes cracks in the relationship. There are also echoes of Annie Hall with the shift in focus from New York to Los Angeles and how Driver struggles in the new environment. The movie is also a study of the conflict between getting the best deal for yourself while also being able to live with how this can negatively affect those who are or were close to you. In the end Marriage Story finds a balanced and humane way to deal with this. Bring a box of tissues when you set back with this one (Niki had to hand plenty to me).

El Camino. If you haven’t seen Breaking Bad then this one probably isn’t for you but if you are like me and think that the story of Walter White’s descent into hell is the greatest piece of modern television, then this one is essential viewing. El Camino deals with what happens to Jesse after the events in the finale of Breaking Bad. It is filled with the same gut-wrenching tension that made the series so watchable and has plenty of flashback moments so that we get to see some of our favourite characters for the last time (assuming they don’t all make an appearance in Better Call Saul at some point). Aaron Paul is excellent in the familiar role as Jesse but for me it is Jessie Plemons as gang member Todd who is the standout performer with his casual and under-stated menace. The movie is a breathless journey with Jesse moving from one crisis to the next while seeking a way to extricate himself from the mess that Walter White entangled him in when he chose him as his partner in crime all those years ago. The movie is an ultimately satisfying end to a great journey.

So there you have my 5 picks. The first two I watched with my boys (7, 9 and 11) and they thoroughly enjoyed them, the second two are great for curling up on the sofa with a partner and well, the last was just a treat for yours truly. And remember, life moves pretty fast, if you don’t stop and look around once in a while you might miss it!