Under normal circumstances, ESPN’s documentary series “The Last Dance” would have been a success. Centered around Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls’ pursuit of the 1997-98 NBA Championship, the series examines both Jordan’s cultural legacy, with all the superhuman accomplishments, and the super human conflicts and complications that plagued the team and the organization from the start.
But in light of our current situation — the 10-part documentary series was originally scheduled to premiere June 23, before ESPN decided to accelerate the release date more than two months spurred by fan fervor and a shocking dearth of sports programming — “The Last Dance” has gained additional resonance. What might have once been an entertaining trip down memory lane, exploring one of basketball’s most exciting dynasties, now carries with it an urgency and communal experience usually reserved for live events and, well, sports.
For better or worse, sports serves as a foundational aspect of American culture, predating even television in its entertainment of the masses. Sports creates a place for fans to emotionally invest and to come together as a collection of disparate parts finding community in something bigger than themselves, not unlike religion. It’s a common language that while it might serve to alienate some, can also bridge gaps and serve as connective tissue that binds us all together.
Without sports — as the country (and for the most part, the world) has been for nearly two months — things feel a little adrift. How do we connect with each other without talking about baseball’s spring training or March Madness or the NBA playoffs? For that matter, how do we talk to each other without film festivals or season finales or movie theater popcorn? It’s difficult. It’s unpleasant. It’s unfamiliar.
“The Last Dance” soothes much of that simply by existing. Here is something you can watch that speaks a language you understand and take comfort in. But that’s not the only thing working in its favor.
There’s also the nostalgia.
Like sports, nostalgia can do just as much harm as good, but in its best possible iterations, it allows for simple transport to a time gone by. It reminds people of a past that, whether accurate or not, was better, easier, or just different than the moment they’re currently trapped in. In this case, revisiting the Jordan era of the NBA feels like hearkening back to that “simpler time” when the only TV show was “Friends” and the only movie was “Jurassic Park.” It’s a misbegotten memory of when we all liked the same things (we didn’t) and we all cared about the same things (we didn’t) and we all lived the same way (we didn’t).
But “The Last Dance” doesn’t get stuck by that nostalgia, either. It doesn’t suggest that everyone was a fan of Jordan or invested in the Bulls. Rather, the story it’s telling is about a man that not everyone loved, but that everyone was curious about. Jordan was one of the most recognizable people in the world and to have access to his mind and his experiences and his life is intensely gratifying.
All of this only works as well as it does if “The Last Dance” is good. Which it is. It’s great. It is a story well-told and would likely be enjoyed by anyone with even a vague interest in Jordan, the Bulls, the NBA, basketball in general, or with the state of American culture in the 1990s. But for anyone who found themselves at all invested in any of those things, it’s like going home.
For more on the absolutely bananas ratings “The Last Dance” is pulling for ESPN, check out this week’s episode of “Millions of Screens” with TV Awards Editor Libby Hill, TV Deputy Editor Ben Travers, and Creative Producer Leo Garcia — as recorded from the comfort of their three respective Los Angeles-area apartments, where they are furiously converting all of their swag t-shirts into masks.
Plus, stick around as Libby and Leo prod Ben for details on the whole host of TV reviews he’s published in the last week, including some winners, some losers, and some exasperation that the release schedule persists, even as the collective culture burns.
“Millions of Screens” is available on Anchor, Apple Podcasts, Breaker, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and Stitcher. You can subscribe here or via RSS. Share your feedback with the crew on Twitter or sound off in the comments. Review the show on iTunes and be sure to let us know if you’d like to hear the gang address specific issues in upcoming editions of “Millions of Screens.” Check out the rest of IndieWire’s podcasts on iTunes right here.
This episode of “Millions of Screens” was produced by Leonardo Adrian Garcia.