Every great sports story has an underdog. Netflix’s “Last Chance U” has an entire roster: one talented football player after another, demoted to the junior college circuit after being cut from Division 1 play for failing grades or arrests. East Mississippi Community College is, as the six-part series tells you, their last chance.
But the real standout isn’t even on the field. Brittany Wagner, the school’s athletic instructional adviser, not only looks like Connie Britton, but mirrors that actress’ no-nonsense principal in “Friday Night Lights”: tough, compassionate, dedicated. Her scenes in which she prods and pleads with her students to do everything from carry a pencil to class to practice safe sex are more riveting than any action on the gridiron.
Those starting to form a layer of grime on their skin after a summer of “The Bachelorette” will be refreshed by a reality star whose primary interest is trying to help others shine.
Same goes for Lions coach Buddy Stephens, who started the 2015 season with three “JUCO” championships under his belt. His methods may not be politically correct — he curses like a Quentin Tarantino gangster and advises his students to stop sneaking girls into their dorm and pony up for a motel room instead — but his results are hard to beat. Graduates of his tough-love practices include New England Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount and Chad Kelly, who bounced back at East Mississippi after being dismissed at Clemson and is now starting quarterback at Ole Miss.
The series, which will be streamed beginning next Friday, is based on a GQ piece by Drew Jubera, but director Greg Whiteley digs into nooks and crannies that even print journalists don’t get access to, capturing a cocky running back as he tries to pick up a coed in the school library; tagging along on a tardy player’s humiliating punishment of having to roll 110 yards across the practice field, wheezing and whining with every rotation; earning the wrath of a blustery Stephens as he swats away the camera right before laying into his team.
Whiteley first impressed me with his 2014 documentary “Mitt,” which cracked the Teflon coating on Mitt Romney, exposing just how much handlers shielded voters from the candidate’s real and, in this case, highly likable personality.
“Chance” accomplishes much of the same goal, going beyond the bravado adopted by most up-and-coming athletes and leaving viewers with a ragtag team of boys, kicking themselves for past mistakes, but still trying to claw their way back to responsibility, serving their penance in a town where the biggest recreational choices are choosing to have dinner at Subway or a local chicken shack. Any temptations to showboat for the cameras have been wisely excised in the edit room.
Whiteley sometimes gooses the action by slipping into slow motion and jacking up the soundtrack with upbeat gospel music. The tale is captivating enough without the trimmings.
It’s likely that some of the Lions you’ll fall for will end up making their mark in the NFL. Nine graduates of the program are on pro rosters; the average for a Division I school is seven.
But here’s hoping Wagner also sticks in your mind. Mentors like her give education a good name. The same could be said for what Whiteley is doing for reality TV.
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