A review of Last Chance U provides a fascinating insight into not only collegiate athletics but also the struggles young men live with, having football as their only escape from the harsh reality of American society.
The Netflix documentary series follows American football teams at community colleges who play in the NJCAA Division which is many tiers below the popular NCAA Division One football, familiar to most.
These small college teams take players no one else wants, some of whom are exceptionally talented but come from troubled backgrounds or struggle with academics. Sometimes, these players cannot control themselves.
According to the National Football Foundation, College football currently ranks as the second most popular sport in the US with annual fan attendance of 50 million and TV audiences of over 150 million.
With college football being the most efficient route to play in the NFL, it is understandable that many college football athletes see themselves as becoming the next big star.
The crux of the show is that the players have to learn how to work with their coaches and teammates, trying to get one step closer to their dream of being drafted or making Division One or Division Two college scholarships.
Last Chance U seasons vary from amazing highs and winning streaks to everything going wrong and team morale dropping, this makes for very entertaining viewing.
Tightly edited hour-long episodes usually begin by covering the daily life of athletes and coaches then ending with a climactic game of the week, where everything studied in practice is put to the test.
The latest season leaves behind the smaller, rural town settings of the previous two seasons based in Mississippi and Kansas, and follows the Laney College Eagles out of Oakland, California who are attempting to defend their 2018 state title.
The show also explores the gentrification of Oakland in several episodes and what happens to an urban space when the people who have lived there for generations can no longer afford to stay.
One player on the team works two jobs and sleeps in his car, the viewer can begin to see parallels between the city and the empty stadiums of the team itself.
Laney provides a satisfying change of pace for the series after two years at Kansas’ Independence Community College, where coach Jason Brown, was often highly abusive to the players and staff. Phrases like, “We got a soft ass generation, man! I’ll be f**kin’ damned if my f**kin’ ass gonna be soft! You better f**kin’ match my shit or go the f**k home… soft ass shit!” become a staple of Brown’s on screen time.
Whilst his self-promoting approach could be viewed as entertaining, it quickly became very suffocating and rendered the actual players a near afterthought toward the end of the fourth season.
The biggest difference is found in the overall coaching philosophy. Coach John Beam, who has been coaching football at the college for 16 years, is introduced as almost the complete opposite of Jason Brown. Beam has lived in Oakland his whole life and is often donned the ‘Godfather of football in Oakland’.
He is a renowned high school dynasty-maker after working at Oakland-based Skyline High for 22 years and has turned his hand to building Junior College (JUCO) programs. On his desk, he has a picture of himself with his therapist wife of nearly 40 years who he praises:
“She very rarely sees a negative in anybody. Other than our current president.”
Can you expect a predictable quarterback controversy as injuries and incompetence force the team to the brink of collapse? Of course, but that uncertainty is captured through the eyes of Dior Walker-Scott, a wide receiver failing financially and suffering with family issues. Walker-Scott worries that his decision to fill in at QB might impact his ability to get recruited at his true position and dream college, Hawaii.
Will there be an ego driven “Just throw me the ball!” wide receiver, constantly pushed over the edge because of small things like correctly running routes? Sure, but that archetype here is embodied by RJ Stern. Stern’s insecurities are revealed to stem from a family history like nothing you’ve seen on the show before.
Last Chance U offers viewers a compelling observation into the underground and exploitative world of collegiate athletics. Twists and turns fill every episode and the unpredictable nature of JUCO football makes for a fantastic viewing experience and gets the SG Reviews seal of approval.
“Last Chance U: Laney” is now available to stream on Netflix.