By Darren Franich
July 25, 2018 at 11:28 PM EDT
Credit: Alan Markfield/Netflix

You want to bum a kid out? Make them play football.

America’s most popular sport has become, in this decade, America’s most popular reason to bring up debilitating brain injuries. The gridiron was always violent, but the CTE narrative has led to a decline in participation on the high school level. So there’s this new quality to football: fully fatalist, Greek-Tragic, like the first step out on your heroic adventure is also one foot in the grave. Not the vibe you get from, like, the prettybae soccer players with their perfect hair, or the baseball players dadbod-chilling in the outfield through the 134th game of the summer.

Last Chance U‘s third season (which just debuted on Netflix) is a bluntly honest look at this desperate, almost nihilistic era of American football. The season follows a Kansas Junior College team, the Independence Community College Pirates. If you’ve ever read or seen any version of Friday Night Lights, you know the format. Players, coaches, teachers, small town, big dreams. Last Chance U is nonfiction, but like a lot of the most addictive sports documentaries, it feels “cinematic” in the old-fashioned sense, luscious music, you-are-everywhere camerawork. The eight episodes chronologically track the football season, each hour building to a game. The sport itself is presented with quick-hit thrills, dangerous touchdowns. Only the good stuff, like NFL RedZone with more catharsis.

It’s ludicrously involving. But don’t call it escapism. Last Chance U is brutally honest about its young players’ prospects. “Everybody doesn’t make it to the NFL,” says English teacher LaTonya Pinkard. “That’s a false hope.” It’s also the only hope these young players allow themselves. Many of them come from difficult circumstances. Playing football is the lotto opportunity, a way to lift up their entire family, the difference between ongoing generational struggle and untold kamillions.

Pinkard seems like a great teacher. Onscreen, she’s been reality-cast as the skeptical everyperson. She’s the adult who knows not every dream comes true; she’s the proverbial Person Who Cares About Stuff Besides Football. She worries for her students, has a knack for mapping out the impossibility of their circumstances. Football, she explains, is like their “main chick.” The teachers, the school, everything on the student side of student-athlete? That’s the “side chick.” “Once the main chick has possibly used you up and got everything that she needs, she probably move on,” Pinkard says bluntly.

She’s talking to football players, and they don’t disagree. For some of the Pirates, the dream already seems halfway moved on. Running back Rakeem Boyd, wide receiver Carlos Thompson, and quarterback Malik Henry all previously played for Division 1 college teams. They all faced one form of exile or other, kicked out for bad grades or bad behavior, banished for behavior issues.

Still, the “college” part of “college sports” is an issue for the players. As the season progresses, Coach Jason Brown gets regular updates on his players’ dismal grades, their regular absences. There’s a helplessly transactional quality to the Pirates season, a straightfaced capitalist imperative replacing every spiritual idea of teamwork. These players want to play well enough so they can play somewhere better. Hometown spirit? Most of them have never been to Kansas before.

Still, they have to go to class. “Ignorance is life f–ing threatening, man,” Brown tells his team. “89% of the NFL and NBA players are broke three years after they f—ing retire. Broke! Bankrupt! Flat broke! And if you think football is gonna pave the way for the rest of your life, you’re f—ing sadly mistaken.”

What a speech for a football coach! Don’t mistake this for a speech about the importance of education, though. “If you go to class, stay off your f–ing phones, sit in the front, turn in your f—ing homework, you’ll get a C!” Brown yells. The degree’s part of the transaction, another game: “You should let football pay for your education, and not the other way around.”

A lot of Brown’s scenes are like this: Blunt, outrageous, offensive, sly, grandiose, depressing, illuminating. A foulmouthed strategist from Compton, Brown says more bad words in any single sentence than anyone on Friday Night Lights ever said on NBC. Brown’s a magnetic reality TV personality, with a sharp sense of humor. He’s also, on the field, an imperial loudmouth, screeching at assistant coaches, players, and refs.

He knows how easy it is to hate him. But in remarkably intimate confessionals, Brown comes across as self-aware, bemused, maybe a little ruined by this job he’s great at. Director Greg Whiteley films those interviews like you’re having a drink with Brown. You start to worry that Brown’s only drinking buddy is a camera crew.

Credit: Netflix
Credit: Netflix
Credit: Netflix

The rawness of Whiteley’s interview style extends to the young men, sometimes filmed in extreme-closeup with tears in their eyes. Some of them are extremely talkative. (They look pretty stoked to be on Netflix.) A couple are painfully recessive. Linebacker Bobby Bruce slouches through the classroom, sometimes looks like a man trying to hide behind himself. Henry is a fascinatingly prickly presence. As a high school star, he achieved national fame. But he had a troubled year in Florida, has a Pangaea-sized chip on his shoulder, omnipresent manager dad.

The new iteration of Last Chance U (titled Indy: Part 1 on the service) is the first season I’ve watched. It’s a new setting, and I gather from my colleagues at Sports Illustrated that this season marks a somewhat downbeat tonal departure from the East Mississippi Community College years. I’m a casual football fan, like I watch my college team sometimes, and I like books about the moral corruption of NCAA football, and I love getting outraged about tax money that pays for football stadiums. My wife watches even less football than me, and sometimes had to pause Last Chance U ask me for rule clarifications. (Truly the blind leading the blind; turns out I have no clue how overtime works.)

We both loved the season. The games are tremendously exciting. A couple players seem to be ascending toward the possibility of a career — and you feel intensely for the players who aren’t getting there. You couldn’t call Last Chance U‘s portrayal of football “inspiring.” Whitely’s adept at capturing the nigh-dystopian surrealities of the American football system. “The business and profession of college football,” Brown tells us, is a “meat market.” Scouts arrive from four-year schools for some surreal interactions, proudly chest-beating about the size of their Jumbotron. Whiteley’s patient camera lets you notice the underlying dynamics of the trade. The scouts are mostly white, while the players mostly black. And there’s an equivalent divide between the Pirates and the town they’re playing for. The Independence we see is full of older white locals, ecstatic about all the (young, African American) talent they’ve imported. There’s a deeper story bubbling through Last Chance U, a portrait of college football that’s swooning but quite sobering. “I’m not down for the way the NCAA treats us,” Henry says at one point. “Damn near like slaves, with the workload and the class schedule and football on top of that.”

You wonder if there’s more story there. H. G. “Buzz” Bissinger’s original Friday Night Lights book expanded outwards from small town football to a grand history of Texas, economic trends, encompassing racism, school corruption, oil, presidents. Whiteley keeps one eye on game day at all times. His style glossy and a bit passive. (His documentary about Mitt Romney took six years of work, and left you with the strong impression that there was a once a man named Mitt Romney.) You wonder sometimes if he’s putting entertainment ahead of information. At one point, the sweetly ineffective QB coach shows us his living quarters. It looks like a barely-lived-in motel room; the coach admits his salary is zero. Is the whole staff unsalaried? The old men of Independence are excited by the prospect of a successful football team. Do they care about the men on the team? Or are they just interchangeable numbers?

Am I making this sound like a bummer? It’s a rollicking entertainment. There are ticking-clock countdowns to big games, on-the-field implosions, a devotional rap video, a grudge match. Pinkard shines, throughout, a walking exemplar of the possibilities of higher education, talking with raw honesty about her struggles, doing her damnedest to teach her kids about the possibilities of life off the field, opportunities they never learned about.

Credit: Netflix

One final note. Last Chance U is a peculiar subgenre of TV, somewhere between a sensitive documentary, a Bravo docusoap, and a reality competition series (a game in every episode!) It’s stunningly well-made, but you wonder if some people onscreen are playing to the camera. (Look them up, they’re all on social media!)

And you feel that, for some people, the camera might be a problem, one more thing they have to deal with in a life of 4:30 AM wakeups and punishing practices and classes and more practice and high-stakes games that could decide their future. I felt that most of all with Henry, who could be the most media-trained of any of the players, but who often looks physically pained to be onscreen. Pinkard has a meeting with him at one point. She asks, straightforwardly: “Are you okay?”

“Not really,” says Henry. And he laughs. It’s an awkward giggle, like he can’t believe anyone needs to ask. Something (or some number of things) is bothering him. You wonder if he just doesn’t want to share that with the public. But that’s the way the game is played. On Last Chance U, the football games are thrilling, and nobody is okay. A