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‘Last Chance U’ Season 2 review: A beautiful, grueling show confronts itself

Netflix’s excellent JUCO football documentary returns July 21.

“I just don’t like that guy,” East Mississippi Community College coach Buddy Stephens says in Season 2 of Netflix’s Last Chance U. He’s talking about himself in Season 1.

The show, about a JUCO football dynasty in Mississippi, doesn’t hold back, not even when the issue is itself. It’s become the most self-referential sports doc I know of.

In one scene, academic counselor and team mom Brittany Wagner (“Oh no, even the kicker can’t go to class; that’s fantastic.”) does a radio spot about her celebrity status, polling the players in her office about the show’s impact. Stephens both agrees with and mocks viewers who complain about his language. Coaches consider the show a #Distraction. Cameras were at last season’s Auburn-Mississippi State game, when Season 1 players were in uniform. Players thank viewers for sending pencils.

A coach of an even more end-of-the-road team critiques the show’s title, since EMCC has nationally desired athletes: “more like Second Chance U.” You’ll be able to login at Netflix to see his players cracking up at Netflix footage of Stephens.

Some spoilers ahead.

The brawl looms over everything.

Announcer Jason Crowder, on the bench-clearer that wrecked the team’s 2015 and was both the intro and climax of Season 1: “There is a reputation around the league of disdain for Buddy and East Mississippi. When you have a brawl, like happened last year, the accusation of, ‘Oh, that roster’s full of thugs.’”

“Thug bullshit” was what Stephens screamed at his players, accusing them en masse before reviewing the footage.

Because of the brawl, the entire returning team — including assistants, trainers, and starting QB De’Andre Johnson, who was only a visiting recruit — is suspended for Week 1, leaving Stephens and graduate assistants to lead a team of a couple dozen freshmen and transfers out to play a full roster. The rest of the team watches itself live on TV, only one step more meta than this doc itself.

“The fight cost us two national championships,” a fan says after that shorthanded loss.

The other cloud: what Johnson did.

FSU dismissed him after footage emerged of him punching a woman. The show doesn’t shy away from it, showing it in full. His parents remain appalled.

Johnson expresses remorse, though it’s unnerving to hear him describe himself as going through “adversity after adversity, like the devil just be coming after me.”

When Division I coaches come around, Wagner and QB coach Clint Trickett vouch for the person they’ve observed on campus.

The show is heavy, for many reasons, but the comic relief isn’t provided by just one player this time.

(Season 1’s beloved Ronald Ollie is currently transferring from Nicholls State.)

There’s an uptick in players roasting each other (then glancing at the camera, because they know they’re on TV now). I shouted at episode 5’s scene of players impersonating Stephens (“like that dude on Sling Blade”). Players agree they can’t stand Trump and Clinton. One proposes writing in Bernie Sanders. Another declares Richard Nixon sufficiently “cold-ass.”

Each episode feels more deeply themed.

One includes a player’s baptism, Stephens asking how Jesus’ apostles landed their jobs, an assistant using his sideline verbal idiosyncrasies while leading Bible study, Stephens “standing with his palms to the sky” as a triple-option offense shreds his defense, and two players singing something a different kind of soulful than the Crime Mob from the week prior.

The spiritual episode’s punchline, whether it was intended or not: publicly religious Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze showing up on a scouting trip amid NCAA investigation.

But is there still a lot of dope football stuff? Football action and football players doing football acts?

The best part of season 1, the nearly unprecedented access inside meeting rooms and on sidelines, is replicated.

"We make that a prerequisite, that we get that kind of access," Greg Whiteley, the Emmy-nominated director and executive producer, told SB Nation in an interview last year. "There are a lot of shows that promise behind-the-scenes access, but not in the way that we’re used to delivering. One of the reasons that we chose EMCC was they said, "Yeah, we can’t think of anything where we’re not gonna allow you to be.’"

I noticed more use of subtle camera tricks like slow-mo and a fitting soundtrack (Boosie, Young Thug, Charles Bradley, 2 Chainz, and so on), elevating game footage from sports movie stuff to hype video stuff.

The majority of the stars play in the FBS-quality defensive front.

LB Dakota Allen, booted by Texas Tech for a burglary charge, has the most cinematic redemption story, returning to TTU. UGA signee Chauncey Rivers, who’ll play DE for Mississippi State, is known as the smart guy and raps about his mother, whom Stephens ejects from the stands for heckling. They’re joined by zoned-out DE Kamonte Carter (formerly of Penn State, now at Pitt, though a teammate tells the camera Carter will be stuck at EMCC) and grinning edge rusher Tim Bonner (who’ll join Johnson and Trickett at FAU). All the Rivals stars help land earnest DL coach Davern Williams a deservedly bigger role.

RB Isaiah Wright is one of the few Season 2 players from the first season, when he snuck onto the field and returned a kick for a touchdown. Then, an assistant laughed and said, “I’ma take credit.” In Season 2, after another Wright TD, the two reference that scene.

Wright opens up to the show about his time as a foster child and his fiancee’s miscarriage, all while dealing with injuries. Frustration mounts as he and Stephens build toward a meltdown during the state title game.

It’s a show about all the hours it takes to remake yourself, even if those with marketable talent might find an accelerated timeline.

“I dunno how I’m doing,” Stephens says of his allegedly gentler persona. “I guess I’ll wait ‘til the documentary comes out to see.”

Well ...

“I don’t know if he’s changed or not,” says series breakout star Wagner, whose players cheer her through a job search. “According to what the players tell me, they’re not seeing a whole lot of change either. Maybe he’s quit cussing, so great. I haven’t.”

She leaves and is starting an academic counseling company.

If you don’t like college football, should you watch this?


If you like football, sh-