Netflix’s award-winning documentary series Last Chance U returns for a second season this weekend.
The show takes us behind-the-scenes at East Mississippi Community College, where one of the most successful teams in the USA’s Junior College league makes and breaks the future of young athletes.
With eight more episodes of drama in the small town of Scooba, Mississippi, here are seven reasons why you should watch Last Chance U, whether you like football or not.
1. It’s not about football
Hands up if you like American Football. Hell, put your hands up if you understand American Football. From drafts to college leagues, the whole world of the NFL is a mystery to Brits. But the good news is that Last Chance U isn’t about football. It’s about the people who play it – over the first seasons’s six hours, we get to know the players at EMCC intimately, from John “Showtime” Franklin III, the star quarterback (no, we don’t know what that is either), to Wyatt Roberts, who’s competing with him for the central role. There’s D.J. Law, a father who lives away from his family and struggles with that distance, and there’s Ronald Ollie, a grown-up kid who gives his all on the pitch, but doesn’t seem to care about giving anything off it.
They’re a motley bunch and the access the show gets to their world gives them an honesty that immediately earns our sympathy – so when they lose or win, we actually care. Not because of the football, but because of its importance to them.
2. It’s about college football
Last Chance U may not be about football in the traditional sense, but it is about something more dramatic: college football. EMCC may not be anything to boast of academically, but when it comes to touchdowns, it’s the top dog, with its team, the Lions, boasting a run of 24 unbeaten games. Can they keep it up? If their loud, shouty coach, Buddy Stephens, has anything to do with it, they will, but it’s no spoiler to say that things start to go wrong almost as soon as the season begins.
While the old adage tells us nothing good lasts forever, what makes Junior College sports so important is that forever is precisely what’s on the line. The Lions are a mixed bunch of misfits, from college dropouts to poverty-stricken locals, who all have one thing in common: football is their ticket out of town. Many of them black, many of them without a back-up plan, they pin their hopes on football, whether that’s the long-term dream of making it to the NFL or the more immediate challenge of just getting a college scholarship. Every match, every rivalry for every spot on the team, every disciplinary or pitch riot (in an ominous sign of what’s to come, things get violent in the very first episode) – whatever happens matters to them all. Sporting dramas about underdogs are two a penny, but you’ve never seen a sports story so raw or devastating.
3. The world’s worst coach
Guiding the team through their minefield of victories and failures is the world’s worst coach – or the world’s best coach, depending on how you look at it. Buddy Stephens is the PE teacher everyone had at school, half bully, half believing father figure. When his team does well, he rides the wave of enthusiasm with a proud, blazing spirit. When they don’t, he turns on them, calling them thugs and berating them without holding back. He’s sincere to the point of instability, blustering back and forth in the winds of his changing moods, reaching breaking point in Episode 4. Does the desire to win his approval help to motivate the players? Perhaps. But part of the documentary’s engrossing depth is that it doesn’t shy away from showing us all sides of this tempestuous volcano of a man, someone who’s as pleased and inspired by the way his college students fight to get somewhere as he is aware of how to recruit them for precisely that reason.
4. The world’s best teacher
The coach’s opposite number is Brittany Wagner, academic advisor at EMCC. If Buddy is the show’s bubbling fury, she’s its calming heart, a teacher who cares about each one of her students, no matter how they behave. She’s as patient as they come, spending her days battling just to get them bring pens and paper to school, always trying to encourage them through firm kindness to get the minimum grades they need to make it out of Scooba. The players’ affection for her is clear to see, even with Ollie, who spends his days slouching in her office with his headphones in, stubbornly refusing to accept any offers from colleges he considers beneath him. She’s as useful in the football world as she is in the classroom, also handling the negotiations with recruiters to make sure her boys don’t throw opportunities away – and her ability to do all this with the same smile and sweet concern, week after week, is inspiring to witness.
5. It’s gripping
With the players’ futures in the balance every episode, there’s an emotional stake at play that makes every match we glimpse inherently gripping – each win builds their confidence, only for their fear of losing the next match to bring them back down to vulnerable earth. But the football is exciting in its own right too, thanks to director Greg Whiteley, who finds tension not just in the running, kicking and passing, but also in the way he cuts to the sidelines to give us Buddy’s angry reaction or the other players’ nervous spectating. It’s bruising in every sense of the word.
6. It’s short
For non-sports fans, the thought of following a whole season of football is a daunting one, but Last Chance U’s strength partly lies in the way it condenses all of those ups and downs into six hours: a concentrated blast of action, emotion and real life that’s over in the blink of an eye. You’ll easily be able to binge-watch it in a weekend, unable to resist the urge to get to the rollercoaster final episode. The only downside is you’ll wish it lasted longer.
7. It’s back for Season 2
The good news? Season 2 arrives on Friday 21st July, with another eight episodes of engrossing real life drama to tackle. And with many of the stars of Season 1 returning, not to mention Buddy and Brittany still doing their jobs, there are a lot of familiar faces to catch up with…
Season 1 and 2 of Last Chance U are available on Netflix UK, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription.