In the world of “Last Chance U,” success is a tricky thing to measure. That certainly goes for the main subjects of each passing year, as a new team of junior college football players and coaches try to navigate the specific demands of a fall season, all while being the stars of a Netflix documentary series. Episodes cover the overall wear and tear of the weekly trudge from practice to gameday. In each case, that close examination of the gridiron ins and outs are balanced with a careful look inside the lives of some of the noteworthy players.
For every slow-motion highlight of an acrobatic sideline catch or a stealthy sack, there are a handful of moments tracking that time away from the field. Sparse dorm rooms or campus job work stations or English classrooms become the ongoing counterpoint to the exploits that could net them a chance at college football glory on one of the nation’s highest stages. It’s the same approach that director and executive producer Greg Whiteley brought to “Cheer” that made that show an early-2020 phenomenon.
With the format and style more or less established for the show, the obvious change for the show’s fifth and final season is the venue. After spending two seasons each at schools in Mississippi and Kansas, “Last Chance U” travels to Oakland, where Laney College is looking to defend its 2018 state title.
The show has always been able to have its drama cake and eat it too by focusing on teams that, whether on-field powerhouses or relative upstarts, still have plenty of underdog stories on an individual level. This year, there’s Nu’u Taugavau, the lineman balancing his D-1 aspirations with being a good husband and father to his two children. Dior Walker-Scott, the speedy wideout navigating the recruitment process, all while living out of his car. Rejzohn Wright, the confident (sometimes to a fault) cornerback trying to follow in his brother’s footsteps and join the ranks of a Power Five-conference squad.
Along with these players, the other individual pillar of the season is head coach John Beam, carrying with him four decades of football experience at the high school and college levels. As with past “Last Chance U” team leaders, the show doesn’t exempt him from criticism, whether in slyly using his own words against him or showing his players taking issue with some of his management decisions. His practice clashes with another featured player, receiver RJ Stern, are made all the more interesting having been offered a window into both their perspectives.
But even with amstorytelling approach that tries not to skew too much in favor of one side or the other, there’s still an effort in “Last Chance U” to show the emotional ties that hold a locker room together. For as much as football (and the conversations around it) are often dominated by second-guessing and knee-jerk criticism, it’s nice to have the reminder that football is not a game of binaries. The right calls don’t always produce intended results, and a batted ball can always surprise where it bounces.
That goes for the season in full. With eight episodes a season to play with, rarely do games get fast-forwarded or montaged out of importance. From the season opener, Laney’s plans quickly veer off script, forcing the entire team to not only rethink their ambitions, but what role they each have to play in it. Every season has its adjustments, but Laney’s seesaw between heartbreak and breakthrough as the year goes on feels far more true to the average experience of a college football team than an arc aimed toward a certain level of dominance.
So here, there’s no predestined finish of glory and no (as was the case in the show’s second Kansas-set season) portrait of a program quickly unraveling. The team still has an aura of invincibility, given its coaching pedigree and the talent of some of its “skill position” players. But, even more than usual, the outlook stays on each passing week rather than some elusive title. “Last Chance U: Laney” benefits from tracking the rhythms of a season that has the potential to — like the overwhelming majority of them, televised or otherwise — fall somewhere in that grey area between euphoric championship highs and crushing outmatched defeats.
Some of this season’s most enlightening diversions come with a regular trip to a local watering hole where, away from Beam, the assistant coaches and coordinators get honest with each other about where they see the team and each other. While you’ll never get completely candid, unguarded conversations from people wearing a mic, those group back-and-forths are the kind of patient observation that “Last Chance U” has excelled at over the past half-decade.
As both the football and TV seasons draw closer to the end, football recedes in a slightly different way than it usually does. There’s no episode like the one from the show’s second season that flipped to show life at a less-funded crosstown program. Even if one chapter acknowledges issues of gentrification in these greater Bay Area communities, that wider zoom-out is also spread across the season’s other seven. Along the way, “Last Chance U: Laney” addresses fraught family relationships, gun violence, cultural heritage, and ideas of affordable housing. And there are plenty of needle drops from Oakland rappers to go along with original music from Yuri Tománek and Joseph Minadeo.
So, in its last football team portrait, “Last Chance U” finds success in taking its cues from the people in frame. Rather than try to graft on a predetermined narrative, directors Whiteley and Daniel McDonald, along with DP Terry Zumalt, try to take in a season that’s not sensational and that can move at the players’ pace. In another show, when Beam conducts his de facto exit interviews with each individual player at the end of the season, hearing him tell some guys that this might be the end of their football road would be the ultimate tragedy. Here in “Last Chance U,” though, there’s a constant acknowledgment that there’s always more to tell.
“Last Chance U: Laney” is now available to stream on Netflix.