Calling Last Chance U, which returns for its fourth season on Netflix Friday, a cross between Hard Knocks and Friday Night Lights is like if I told you that The Human Centipede is a sort of gross popcorn movie about a doctor who kidnaps a couple tourists. I wouldn’t be lying—yes, Last Chance U is a reality show with loads of football and drama—but I’d be short-changing you just a tiny bit.
Really, Last Chance U is a marvel of a show, making what should be a lowbrow jock-doc into prestige TV. The premise is pretty simple: When Division I football players flame out of their programs (injuries, bad grades, drugs, or it turns out they just suck), they go to junior colleges in the boonies to play their way back to the big schools. Last Chance U follows squads of redemption projects who would really rather be anywhere than Northeastern Arizona, or Itawamba County, Mississippi, whatever—but they need to pass classes and drill a couple people to get out.
In its first two seasons, Last Chance U followed the East Mississippi Community College Lions (basically the Patriots of JUCO) and their quests for national championships in 2015 and 2016. For the next two seasons of the show—including the one premiering tomorrow—Last Chance U moves on to the Independence Community College Pirates (the Browns, if you will), documenting their shot at rebuilding the school’s long-suffering football program. A typical episode covers a week with the team—practices, time in the classroom, meet-and-greets with the players, and an actual game. Essentially, recognizable sports documentary stuff that you’ll notice very quickly is executed way better than it needs to be.
First of all, someone, somewhere, decided to film this like Cary Fukunaga filmed True Detective Season One—meaning, you’re still watching guys smack the living shit out of each other, but it looks like a bleak opioid documentary. Add to that the remote settings, where all of the roads are of the old-town variety: Scooba, Mississippi, and Independence, Kansas. A good chunk of an episode is actually dedicated to Independence’s Neeowallah Festival, a creepy Halloween ritual where you can buy a deep-fried, bacon-wrapped pecan pie. It’s beautiful but a little unnerving, like if Terrence Malick directed Remember the Titans.
Last Chance U captures characters and moments that would belong in that Malick-directed sports epic, too—and it’s as insane-looking as it sounds. A classic Last Chance U moment looks like this: A normal team jogs from the pregame tunnel to some AC/DC-sounding guitar riff, flanked by cheerleaders and oversized flags. The Independence Pirates, on the other hand, surround linebacker Bobby Bruce—nearly a Shakespearean tragic hero himself—who puts on a Donnie Darko-esque bunny mask, sits down in the middle of the tunnel, and rocks back and forth like he’s about to feed on the nightmares of the Coffeyville Red Ravens.
In terms of basic, reality TV entertainment value, it helps that both the East Mississippi and Independence head coaches are both genuinely psychopathic. The former, Buddy Stephens, is one poke-of-the-bear away from fist-fighting a referee (this happens four episodes into Season One), and the latter, Jason Brown, operates as if Bill Belichick’s id started coaching football games (“Let’s suffocate these motherfuckers and go get some pussy!” is a one of the more pedestrian pregame battle cries from the new season). No doubt, it’s all grade-A insane behavior—Brown sometimes does interviews with the filmmakers from his hot tub, sipping whiskey and puffing from a cigar—but it’s still a reality show, and it’s hard to look away when testosterone levels reach code red.
As for the players, following them over the course of a season is what I’d imagine a bingeable version of parenthood is like: you fall for the kids’ personalities, root for them to show up for class and write a dope capstone paper, and end up getting disappointed more often than not. Independence’s Bobby Bruce—who’s at once full of life and self-destructive—is as complicated of a character that you’ll see on any show. And Last Chance U’s filmmakers are ridiculously thorough in fleshing out the players’ backgrounds and motivations—most of the guys they focus on are trying to overcome harsh circumstances and have staked their entire futures on making it to the NFL. Which is to say, when someone plays through a concussion, you feel it. And with the actual game footage, Last Chance U cuts straight to the highs and lows of each matchup, setting scoring montages to tracks from rappers like Young Thug and Pusha T in case you needed an adrenaline rush between the show’s heavier scenes.
Season Four—the second with Jason Brown and the Independence Pirates—drops on Netflix on Friday, and is already shaping up to be the series’ most unhinged one yet. First of all, every time Last Chance U returns to a school for a second time, things get meta. Think about it—every team Independence will face in Season Four will probably have seen all the dysfunction on their favorite streaming app. And if things are anything like EMCC’s second season, that’ll put a target on Independence’s back—everyone wants to watch themselves get a dub on Netflix.
Since most of the players are one-and-dones and graduate to big schools, Last Chance U has that Harry Potter thing where you get a mix of new and old faces from semester to semester. Season Four sees Independence with a mostly-new roster, which always comes with a whole new load of personality and baggage. But the new episodes show the returns of fan-favorite Bobby Bruce and QB Malik Henry, who are both always in and out of Coach Brown’s graces.
Last Chance U documents Independence’s 2018 season, so we already know that Brown resigned in February for sending a horrible text to a player. And now, he’s facing eight felony charges for alleged identity theft and blackmail after allegedly impersonating an attorney. Yeah. But hey—maybe we’ll see another rogue cow wreak havoc on Independence’s practice field like we did last season. That’ll lighten things up!