Documentaries are often the ideal way to dig beneath the surface of widely-publicized events, which is what has made the genre of sports documentaries so appealing: One game, one moment, even one split-second decision can define an entire career — or an entire life. However, some of the best sports documentaries cut against the idea that a person needs to be measured against a single choice in the heat of athletic competition. “Losers” is a perfect example.
The new Netflix documentary series features in-depth conversations with individuals known primarily for their sports shortcomings. Over the course of eight episodes, the show focuses on a series of people whose failures stretched far beyond a single moment. Whether they were pilloried by a particular community or made global headlines for a series of mistakes, these people carry the label of the title of the show.
But what makes director Mickey Duzyj’s series such a compelling watch is that, rather than turning these defining moments into Greek tragedies with drama-drenched retellings of scorn and mockery, there’s an overwhelming sense of empathy for how disproportionate some of these reactions can be. “Losers” takes a familiar sports doc format — interviewing friends and family and reporters in addition to the people themselves — and adds a layer of vitality to these remembrances that transform each subject from object of ridicule to the heroes of their own stories.
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It helps that there’s a wide variety of sports on display here. These aren’t just plucked from the garden-variety remembrances of the four major American sports. The stories go into the worlds of figure skating, curling, golf, and endurance running. On that level, it serves as a bit of sports education that doesn’t just bank on any baggage that an audience will automatically bring with it. By focusing on less-heralded sources of sports drama, the show illustrates how these stories resonate with the people who represent not just a team or a town, but an entire sport.
Duzyj’s history as an animator (behold this glorious illustration of former NFL ref Ed Hochuli explaining “The Dougie”) brings a distinct visual style to how these various stories unfold. Even in the most disappointing moments, there is an energy to the animated sequences that rises above a simple documentary gimmick. In many cases, these animated accompaniments underline how much these moments come in competitions meant to be games, rather than cosmic events that shape the identity of both player and spectator. At the same time, these also emphasize the distinct artistry that got these masters at their respective sports to a position where their success or failure was so notable.
Some episodes fall into the standard underdog narrative, as in the case of Jean van de Velde, a French golfer whose blown lead it at the 1999 British Open is one of sports’ most infamous meltdowns. At the same time, even as “Losers” includes familiar and recognizable forms of athletes coming up short, it broadens that definition to show how sometimes people are designated as runners-up or non-champions due to forces completely outside their control.
World-class figure skater Surya Bonaly makes the case that her losses came at the hands of judges to were unwilling to accept her as a legitimate competitor. Eventual streetball legend Jack Ryan describes how his series of shortcomings in the world of organized basketball came partly from his own avoidance of responsibility. There’s even an episode on a British soccer team that managed to build its on-field mediocrity into part of an ongoing identity.
“Losers” also isn’t afraid to forego the usual interview venues, bringing these conversations out of a traditional apartment building or studio and into a more organic place for discussion. Sometimes it’s walking the fairway, on the risers at a school gym, or on a stage that has become a boxer’s preferred venue for his skill. In each case, there’s a simplicity to this slightly tweaked approach that allows for a more vulnerable examination of what it means to live with the disappointment of coming up short under a national spotlight.
Still, each of these episodes come to their own sort of happier-than-expected ending. Though it’s clear that some of these people still carry the weight of their infamous moments, one of the underlying conceits of the show is that life goes on; there are things beyond the pitch, the course, or the court. “Losers” isn’t designed to be a corrective against how history has treated each of these individuals, but it’s telling that in almost every case, the episode ends with the person continuing to play the sport that they love. For each of these subjects, life doesn’t end when you lose — it just gets reframed.
“Losers” is now available to stream on Netflix.