[This post originally appeared as part of Recommendation Machine, IndieWire’s daily TV picks feature.]
I would never endorse skipping to the end of a show (or even the middle), but if for some reason you started “Last Chance U: Basketball” at the fifth of its eight episodes, you’d be diving into something unexpected. You won’t find the last-second dramatics of pulse-pounding free throws or prayers at the buzzer. You’ll see the 2019-2020 East Los Angeles College Huskies men’s basketball team dealing with what head coach John Mosley calls “friction.”
The team is talented and they’re winning. Deep into a junior college basketball season, the roster is just suffering from a collective case of cabin fever. With three weeks until the playoffs start, Mosley has a solution: switch to an actual cabin far away from campus.
It’s a field trip that ends up being a standout section of one of the year’s best shows. Even the journey out to Colby Ranch, from talking about transportation logistics to the team’s reaction to being up in the mountains outside LA (“I got no service?? NOOOOOOOO!”) has all the efficient, playful insights into what makes the Huskies go.
The retreat starts with an afternoon hike, one that’s somehow more entertaining when you can only hear the guys as they make their way up a hill. After a delicious-looking dinner, the team breaks off into groups. (The coaching staff gives players sheets with new nicknames on them. Watching them put together who is who — including a smash cut after the word “Sideshow” that might be the funniest visual moment of the season — is an instant mood-setter.)
“Last Chance U,” in any of its forms, is at its best when it captures passion. Sometimes that comes in the form of a heated sideline discussion. But more fulfilling are the moments when you get to see what a player truly cares about. It could be the game, as someone on camera pours his heart into an appreciation of his hopeful career path.
Here at the ranch, it’s great getting to see the team bounce their Top 5s off each other. Rappers and NBA stars don’t get debated as much as they get presented. In turn, each guy gets to show the rest of the team (and anyone watching) what matters to them. You see one of the team’s star big men, Joe Hampton, light up with the opportunity to make his case.
When the night turns to the assistant coach giving players the chance to break out their best Mosley impressions, it’s the show’s chance to shine too. Without the kind of all-angle full court coverage that comes with in-game footage, this crew (including directors Greg Whiteley, Adam Leibowitz, and Daniel George McDonald) knows just where to focus its energy. Before the quick pan over to see guys falling out of their chairs laughing, the audience knows how well each player in turn is getting the essence of the man coaching them. That’s the luxury of a full-season look like this one. That extra time in locker rooms and practice gyms eventually helps you to recognize how closely players like Deshaun Highler have been paying attention the whole time.
Throughout the whole retreat, “Last Chance U: Basketball” is dropping tiny seeds that will flower later. As soon as Mosley says that he likes the inbounds play that one group draws up, you get the feeling it’s coming back later. And before the team piles back in their car caravan to go back down into the city, Mosley’s speech to the players makes for one valuable parting gift. Him talking about what it takes to emerge from a year filled with adversity takes on even more resonance knowing what they (and everyone else) will face in just a few months’ time.
So as the calendar keeps turning, “Last Chance U: Basketball” becomes something of a counterbalance to the other doc projects that chronicle the early weeks of 2020. There’s certainly some heartache and loss (the retreat comes not long after the team’s collective emotional response to Kobe Bryant’s death) and there will be more to come after. But for one day up in the thin, remote mountain air, this show had the chance to show a team connecting in ways beyond the game. It’s that kind of eye for relationships that “Last Chance U” has better than almost any other show going.