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Netflix’s most overlooked series is a real-life Friday Night Lights

Like FNL, Last Chance U is a football show that’s about so much more than that.  

The players of Scooba Tech, on Netflix’s Last Chance U.

Netflix released Last Chance U just two weeks after its 2016 summer breakaway hit, Stranger Things. Unsurprisingly, the documentary series was overshadowed by its near-simultaneous release with the Winona Ryder-led hit, and it also was competing with not just one, but a lot of other great summer shows. But removed from that summer glut, Last Chance U stands tall as one of Netflix’s best original series of the last few years, and with the second season debuting this week, the time has come to give it a closer look.

The six-episode first season of Last Chance U follows the 2015 football season of East Mississippi Community College (a.k.a. “Scooba Tech”); season two will focus on the same team, but with some new characters entering the mix (and some old ones leaving) this time around. Students join the program at Scooba as a last shot at a Division I football scholarship, and many of them balance on the line between passing and dropping out of school. The show is packed with heart-wrenching characters, and captures a part of the country rarely seen on TV. In that way, and many others, it’s reminiscent of another football show that was once overlooked, but over time grew to be a beloved series: Friday Night Lights.

Accordingly, maybe the biggest hurdle for potential viewers of Last Chance U is the same one Friday Night Lights had when it debuted 10 years ago: It’s a football show. But, like FNL, Last Chance U is also about so much more than that.

Last Chance U’s real-life characters and stakes make it extremely affecting

Friday Night Lights (FNL) and Last Chance U (LCU) have a lot in common. FNL was adapted from a nonfiction book about a high school team in Odessa, Texas. A GQ article inspired LCU. Both shows are about communities with bleak circumstances and slim opportunities that revolve around the local football team. They both pulse with Southern pride, and are steeped in faith, family, and football.

But whereas FNL was a network series with invented characters, LCU is a documentary about real people. The subjects of LCU — often struggling against poverty and unstable home lives — are even more haunting because they aren’t just characters that represent worldly truths, but real individuals, living in rural Mississippi.

In season one, there’s the star running back, DJ Law, who’s an unstoppable force on the field and would be able to go to any Division I school he wanted, if he could just pass his classes. “Nobody in my family ever been this far,” Law says to the camera in the first episode. He says he’s playing football for his son back in Florida, but he’s also missing him growing up. He says if he can get to the NFL, then he can take care of him.

There’s Brittany Wagner, the team’s academic adviser, who loves the players to an unequaled degree and tirelessly fights to keep them in the classroom and on the field. She’s a maternal force in their football-centric lives, a little like Connie Britton’s Tami Taylor in FNL — but again, she’s an actual person, and therefore all the more affecting. In one episode, Wagner confesses she doesn’t have much of a life outside her job and taking care of her daughter. “I think I’m a very successful single mom,” she says, “and hopefully it won’t be like this forever.”

Academic adviser Brittany Wagner works with an injured player.

Then there’s Ronald Ollie, a gigantic young man from a trailer park in Shubuta, Mississippi. Like many of his peers, Ollie is heartbreakingly bad at school, and seems sincerely incapable of focusing in the classroom. He also has abandonment issues: His dad murdered his mom and then killed himself when Ollie was just 5 years old.

Leading the charge is head coach Buddy Stephens, a hard-swearing mountain of a man, who’s as sincerely invested in helping these young people improve their lives as he is in winning football games. And he does win. In the first season of LCU, EMCC is working on its third consecutive Junior College Championship. And they don’t just beat other teams — they clobber them.

In the world of Last Chance U, football is a means of escape

LCU opens with shots of dead lawns and boarded-up buildings, and journalist Drew Jubera talks about the first time he drove across the railroad tracks into Scooba, Mississippi. He says, “You see the old downtown, and the one thing that’s operating is a Coke machine on the sidewalk. It really kind of tells you everything you need to know about the place.”

In LCU, the characters more often express disdain than love for their town, and Scooba has as much in common with Flannery O’Connor’s dilapidated Georgia as it does with the proud Texas of FNL. There’s a sense that even if there were better times, they weren’t much better. One of the richest tensions in LCU comes from the swerve away from the more provincial mentality of FNL. Once in a while, the players talk about bringing pride back home, but more often they just talk about getting out.

And their mentors — coaches, teachers, and fans — help them toward that end. A soft-spoken maintenance man with greying hair, Chuck Luke helps the players if they have any issues with their dorm rooms. In one scene, nearly choking up, he says “I get to watch ‘em go on up into bigger schools, and I get to watch ‘em go on up into pro. And, um … It’s just a great experience in my life.”

But escaping from Scooba depends on winning football games. When Ollie gets put out three games with a concussion, he jeopardizes his future recruitment, which captures another poignant obsession of the show: How did football become these guys’ best shot at a better life?

Ronald Ollie suits up.

“Are we really doing the best we can?” Coach Stephens says, reflecting on his players as students, thinking about how if they miss class, they should miss practice, and then miss games. “Every coach, every team in America has the same thing they have to go through. Where’s my line? When have I put winning or being successful on the field ahead of truly putting the success of the student athlete? We all do that.”

Last Chance U doesn’t shy away from discussing the toll football takes on its players

Like FNL — and like in any reasonable conversation about football — LCU also engages with the violent sacrifices demanded by the sport. Clint Trickett, the quarterback coach for the team and a former star player, describes how he was able to hide some of his concussions in high school and college. There’s old footage of him getting hit and going limp in a series of plays. He confesses during one stretch he endured five concussions within 14 months. “I’ve had some brain problems and some trouble with that,” he says pointing at his head, “but this game’s done so much more for me than anything else could have done.”

What’s perhaps most rich — and gut-wrenching — about the stories of the players in LCU is that, while they struggle in the classroom and their lives, they are beautiful forces on the football field. You will want something more for them; but outside of football, it’s not just that the deck is stacked against them. They don’t know any other game.

In keeping with this heartbreaking ambiguity surrounding the sport on which it turns, the first season of LCU culminates in a late-season match that doesn’t end with a win, loss, or a tie, but instead a disaster that blasts opportunities open for one player, while sweeping them away for others.

Some of them do make it out of Scooba. Some of them will continue to fight in season two.

Season one of Last Chance U is available to stream on Netflix. Season two debuts Friday, July 21.