by Matthew Thompson
The makers of Last Chance U struck sports documentary gold during the filming of Season 1. You had the less physically talented incumbent quarterback trying to stave off the super-athletic newcomer and the nation’s longest winning streak coming to an end in an overtime battle against their rival – both of which felt ripped straight out of a football movie. You had sympathetic characters to root for like Ronald Ollie and Ms. Wagner and a villain to hate in Buddy Stephens. And then of course you had the bench-clearing brawl that ended their season. It would have been hard to make up something this good. The recently released second season of the Netflix docuseries was always going to struggle to deliver on the same level. While it is certainly still entertaining to watch in year two – especially for a football junkie like me – it doesn’t come close to matching the brilliance of the first season.
For those unfamiliar, Last Chance U follows the football program at Eastern Mississippi Community College. To get talent above those that typically play football at the junior college level, EMCC recruits players that flame out at the Division I schools. This year saw players formerly on major programs like Florida State, Georgia, Penn State and Texas Tech join the team after being dismissed from their previous squads for arrests involving marijuana possession, assault and armed robbery. With this superior talent plus higher quality facilities and equipment, they built a powerhouse at the JUCO level winning the national championship three out of four years from 2011 to 2014 despite being located in the small Mississippi town of Scooba which is pretty much in the middle of nowhere.
Season 2 – which chronicles the EMCC Lions’ 2016 football season – lacks the compelling player personalities of the previous year. No one captured my attention or had me rooting for them in quite the same way as the aforementioned Ronald Ollie or even quarterback Wyatt Roberts and running back D.J. Law. The breakout star of the series academic advisor Brittany Wagner is back and as endearing as ever in her care for the student-athletes and their futures. But even she doesn’t seem to get the chance to shine as much in the second season. Part of that comes back to me not liking the players as much this year, so the interactions just aren’t quite as enjoyable. And her growing frustration with her situation was probably a factor too. Not that I blame her. Nor am I inferring that she was doing any less than the best she could at her job, but at the same time it became clear she was ready to move on. Finally, it can’t be ignored that everyone was just more aware of the cameras this time around. Buddy’s attempts to be kinder and gentler rung especially hollow by the end.
Despite these ways in which it fell short, there was still plenty of compelling material this time around. I particularly liked some of the storylines and themes they built individual episodes around. The premiere focused on the Lions trying to win their opening game despite only having about 30 of their 55 players available because of suspensions that carried over from the previous year’s melee. One episode showed the role of religion in both the players and coaches’ lives. Another outing honed in on an opposing team, the Coahoma Community College Tigers. Coahoma is sort of the opposite of EMCC. They are on a multi-year losing streak with a team full of walk-ons. I thought what their head coach Steven Miller said was fairly apt. East Mississippi isn’t those players’ last chance, it is more their second chance. Coahoma is home to players who couldn’t really play anywhere else at that level. It may be the last time they play football period, so maybe the “Last Chance U” moniker is more fitting for them. The episode went back and forth between both teams leading up to the game. Seeing the contrast between Stephens and Miller and the way they prepare their teams made for fascinating television.
For me, the first season of Last Chance U was absolutely enthralling. Season 2 couldn’t match it and to be honest it was probably never going to given the circumstances. But it is still an enjoyable behind the scenes look at my favorite sport and I’d easily advise it over something like Hard Knocks. For those like me itching for the upcoming football season to start, Last Chance U’s latest batch of episodes is a good way to get your football fix in the meantime.
A few more things:
- I was happy to see Ms. Wagner move on. I hope her new company is a success. She seems like such a great person. Her final scene where she moved out of the office and said her goodbyes was one of the best of the season.
- Still some excellent in-game footage on the show this year. Again, it really helps fill that growing need for football I have this time of year. I’m starved!
- Dakota Allen was probably my favorite of the players they focused on. I found a couple of the other players absolutely intolerable.
- I liked some of the coaches too. I feel bad for the Offensive Coordinator. Went from coach in waiting to going through that nonsense at the bowl game. Brutal. Buddy could really be the worst at times.
- I’m glad they will be focusing on a new school next season. I think that is the best call given some of the coaches and Wagner leaving plus some of the other issues I had with Season 2. I look forward to seeing what the change will bring to the series.