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‘Last Chance U’ Review: Netflix Series Proves That Football and TV Are Still a Perfect Match

Season 2 of the junior college football documentary series is a human story that goes beyond sports.

Last Chance U Season 2

“Last Chance U”

Steve Dietl / Courtesy of Sony P

Last Chance U,” like any other show worth a sophomore season, carefully approaches both past and present. The East Mississippi Community College Lions, the football team profiled in the first season of the Netflix documentary series, are back again, but this new round of stories lives in the shadow of those that came before. This sequel keeps the established skeleton of a fall slate of games, brings back some beloved characters and checks in on departed favorites. The subject may be sports, but this is as TV as TV gets.

The show’s second season, tracking EMCC’s 2016 season, has the added layer of self-awareness. As a town shy of 1,000 people, director Greg Whiteley’s Netflix series has now created an identity for Scooba, Mississippi, one that not all its citizens are particularly happy with. Football players are never just football players, especially at any level above Pop Warner. But now that these players know what to expect from being at the heart of a Netflix series, “Last Chance U” does all it can to keep these people from existing simply as characters.

One of those individuals is Lions head coach Buddy Stephens, a well-meaning hothead whose colorful sideline language in Season 1 (as we learn repeatedly in this round of episodes) became something of a mini-tragedy in Scooba. Season 2 indulges his lighter John Denver and Debbie Gibson-loving side, but there’s no escaping the boisterous relish with which he doles out orders to his team and coaching staff.

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As a junior college team, EMCC features a number of transfer students whose legal and academic trouble have already taken them away from slots on nationally recognized Division-I rosters. At the collegiate and professional level, the institution of football has had a poor recent track record in dealing with the off-the-field offenses of its players, and initially, “Last Chance U” comes close to falling in the same trap, with one coach describing how an EMCC player ”got into a situation” at his previous school.

But as the series progresses, it looks at these students’ past failures (including assault, burglary and possession charges) with an understanding that their continued football pursuits are not a means for atonement or absolution. Much like the giant team brawl that cost the Lions a national championship in Season 1, the ramifications for these shortcomings persist. “Last Chance U” does not paint these players as victims of circumstance by expunging their past offenses in the name of redemption. Instead, it treats players like quarterback De’Andre Johnson, defensive end Chauncey Rivers or linebacker Dakota Allen as individuals who are obligated to reckon with their past mistakes and are not immune to consequences.

On the field, the “Last Chance U” approach to showing the in-game action follows a recognizable NFL Films model. But as the cameras cut between tackles and sideline talk, there’s an immediacy to the way this footage feels like peeking over the coaches’ shoulders or dropping in on conversations between teammates. Occasionally, the show includes minor scuffles between coaches and cameramen, demanding space, privacy or for someone to simply get out of the way. But with each hit, the show accentuates the crunch of collapsing bodies and doesn’t shy away from the physical toll the sport takes on its participants.

Last Chance U Season 2

“Last Chance U”

Steve Dietl / Courtesy of Sony P

As the Lions plow through mismatched opponents, it allows the rhythms of “Last Chance U” to not be subject to the score on the field. The team’s common pursuit is a championship, but as the rest of the show’s runtime demonstrates, the individual struggles that make up that title run don’t always get reflected in the final score. The defensive lineman with the stellar sack might be the same player tussling with the coaching staff or falling behind on class attendance.

The kind of spotlight that a documentary places on an individual isn’t the same level of scrutiny that star college athletes face under national and local media. But with that added wrinkle of second-season self-awareness, “Last Chance U” becomes a more defined case-study in crafting a legacy. That Whiteley still manages to include so many candid, unguarded moments — especially from individuals who were a part of Season 1 as well — is an impressive feat.

One of the people that “Last Chance U” hones in on is EMCC academic counselor Brittany Wagner. (As one radio interview demonstrates early on, she was a breakout star for some fans.) Over the course of Season 2, the comparison that the show draws between her motivating style and Stephens’ helps ensure that football doesn’t drown out all other aspects of these students’ lives. Wagner’s quiet moments of self-reflection, short glimpses into her home life and dogged pursuit of the young individuals under her charge are the best examples of how the show is able to build an understanding of these people’s lives, even as their attention is being demanded by the all-consuming force of athletics.

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The farther out that “Last Chance U” travels from the show’s center, the better context it gives to what the players stand to gain from success and what they face if they fail. “Last Chance U” does make the occasional detour into barbershops and greasy spoon diners to see how the team’s performance reverberates throughout the community. In the season’s best episode, the show also hops clubhouses and spends a significant amount of time with one of EMCC’s opponents, to see what “juco football” is like for schools that aren’t established royalty inside this world.

Given that the team’s season extended into November, the show also incorporates some of the team reaction to the 2016 presidential campaign. Without feeling smothered by the lead-up or rocked by the result, the team members’ rejection of both major candidates (one player declares himself a fledgling Bernie supporter) helps shade the audience’s understanding of what these players see beyond practice.

Much as the show avoids the easy back-and-forth between field and classroom and takes time to explore the other areas of these players’ lives, it avoids the obvious trajectories of usual sports stories. It allows the Lions some moments of triumph and celebration, but there’s always the constant reminder that this journey for self-improvement doesn’t end with a ring or a trophy. Reworking the myth of the transformative college sports experience, there’s no stirring fairytale sendoff for any of these players, even for the ones whose final episode’s postscripts are peppered with good news. The story always continues, long after the cameras stop rolling.

Grade: B+

“Last Chance U” Season 2 is now available on Netflix.

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