‘Last Chance U’ and the Virtues of Reality TV

Last Chance U

Until you see the difference first-hand, you might think that there is a very fine line between “documentary style programming with heart” and “vapid, soul-sucking entertainment” because all of it is typically lumped together in something known as “Reality TV.” That moniker understandably carries such negative cultural baggage with it due to the medium’s lowest, basest—and, sadly, often its most popular—examples.

Toddlers in Tiaras. Jersey Shore. Bad Girls Club. Bridalplasty. The list, unfortunately, runs long.

But take heart, thoughtful American viewers looking to expand your understanding of the world and people around you! I am here today to ring the bell on behalf of a new series that, by its mere existence, draws a clear line between meaningful, thought-provoking entertainment and whatever Dating Naked is.

I give you, Last Chance U.

Chronicling the tumultuous 2015 season of East Mississippi Community College’s football program, Netflix’s Last Chance U is cut from the same behind-the-scenes cloth of popular sports shows such as HBO’s Hard Knocks and Amazon Prime’s All or Nothing. Created and directed by the same guy (Greg Whiteley) who made a successful 2014 Netflix documentary about Mitt Romney, Last Chance U takes its audience into the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of the EMCC Lions. It shows us young men from across the southeastern United States descending upon the small college town of Scooba, Mississippi, in hopes of making better lives for themselves.

Playing Division I college football is the dream of tens of thousands of high school athletes around the country, especially those who come from humble, troubled beginnings. It is, even if only temporarily, a ticket out of the small town or dangerous neighborhood they have grown up in.

Junior colleges like EMCC are the last chance many of these talented student athletes have of realizing their dream of playing the sport they love at the highest levels. Coach Buddy Stephens—the hot-tempered, if not good-natured field general for the Lions—has built a formidable program in the middle of nowhere by going after the best players who have fallen through the cracks of college football recruitment programs due to poor grades and/or questionable behavior. Some of the young men Stephens recruits have already been on the roster at big-time schools like Florida State and others had scholarship offers their senior year of high school but now play at EMCC while they work on improving their grades and developing better habits.

What makes Last Chance U so compelling is its ability to capture a confluence of multiple quintessentially American things all in the same show: Small-town life. Big city dreams. Unforgettable, larger-than-life personalities. Racial tensions. Love of sports and its ability to transcend things like racial tensions. The powerful effect that a community can have when it rallies around its young people.

Like any great drama, Last Chance U is simultaneously inspiring and heart breaking. You celebrate alongside players like Ronald Ollie when they make a key play in an important game, and then weep for the same kid when you learn that his father killed his mother in a murder-suicide when Ollie was just five years old. You marvel at the world-class athleticism of a player like D.J. Law, but then want to tear your hair out as you watch him needlessly skip class and refuse the earnest help being offered to him by teachers and peers.

The heart-and-soul of the show (and the EMCC program) is Brittany Wagner—“Miss Wagner,” to you—who serves as “athletic instructional adviser” and unofficial “Team Mom.” Wagner is a 38-year-old divorcee and single mother who is the person responsible for keeping track of the eligibility of each player and helping them graduate on time. Her office is daily transformed into a hub of activity as players drop in for encouragement, pep talks and, when necessary, impassioned pleas to take their situation more seriously. Wagner is the carrot to Coach Stephens’ stick as they strive to balance winning football games with doing their part in the formation of the young men under their care. That tension between the players’ on- and off-the-field success is palpable and candidly addressed throughout the six episodes currently available on Netflix.

I do not want to spoil the compelling events of the season depicted in Last Chance U, but what I can tell you is that you will not be disappointed. For anyone looking for an antidote to dating shows, extreme challenges, and Kardashians in their reality TV diet, Last Chance U is it.

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