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'Last Chance U': Netflix Docuseries Follows Troubled Community College Football Stars

Jul 20, 2017
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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The second season of "Last Chance U" begins tomorrow. It's a documentary series on Netflix that follows the football team at East Mississippi Community College. It's one of the most successful junior college programs in the nation. But last year, "Last Chance U" showed the team derailed by suspensions after a bench-clearing brawl. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans says the new season depicts the team fighting to live down the reputation it got both on the field and on the screen.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: I'll be honest - I don't particularly watch sports on TV. But I love "Last Chance U."

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "LAST CHANCE U")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: OK, go. Ten, nine...

DEGGANS: The show's second season begins with a football squad acutely aware of how bad they looked last time around. And the team, with its mercurial, explosive coach, is determined to put on its best face for Netflix's cameras this time, at least at first.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "LAST CHANCE U")

BUDDY STEPHENS: You know, I sat back and I watched it, and I go, I just don't like that guy.

DEGGANS: That's Buddy Stephens, the coach of East Mississippi Community College's football team, the Lions. They dominated their division last season until the team was suspended after a bench-clearing brawl during a game. Stephens, known for his volcanic anger and profanity, screamed at the players once the fight ended.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "LAST CHANCE U")

STEPHENS: We talked about having more pride, but you didn't want to. You want to be damn street thugs. So I tell you what - go find another damn school to go to.

DEGGANS: And the Lions, whose players are mostly black, didn't appreciate Coach Stephens, who is white, calling them thugs.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "LAST CHANCE U")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: That's the white man, bro. Welcome to the real world. That's the white man. Welcome to the real world.

DEGGANS: Especially since the coach had been suspended at a previous game for getting into a fist fight with a referee. As the second season of "Last Chance U" unfolds, Stephens is trying to change. He's doing pushups any time he curses in practice and encouraging his athletes.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "LAST CHANCE U")

STEPHENS: I need happy eyes. I need wide eyes. I need having fun because that's what's going to happen next Thursday. We're going to have fun. You are dadgum great athletes, and we're going to move the ball against them, OK?

DEGGANS: But don't take bets on how long Buddy's Mr.-Nice-Guy routine is going to last because "Last Chance U" is what reality TV is supposed to be, filming its subjects intimately and at length until their pretenses fall away and the truth is revealed. The show's title comes from the nickname for East Mississippi Community College, a school with a powerhouse football team in the tiny town of Scooba, Miss. The best players land at EMCC from bigger schools when they make a mistake, from a quarterback let go by Florida State University for punching a woman in a bar to a defensive lineman ejected by the University of Georgia after his third arrest for marijuana possession.

The real star here is academic adviser Brittany Wagner, a small scrappy lady pushing her players to choose the right classes, show up regularly and get grades good enough to move on.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "LAST CHANCE U")

BRITTANY WAGNER: I just think it's going to be a stressful semester. And I've got to figure out a way to be like, look, are you going to ruin your whole future for two seconds of camera time? Or are you going to focus on what you're supposed to be doing?

DEGGANS: As the season progresses, Coach Stephens backslides. He and his staff cut off their wireless microphones at sensitive times. Later, he pushes and kicks at cameras. The second time around, he knows how badly he's coming off. Still, director Greg Whiteley seems to catch everything, from Wagner's growing frustration with the coach's approach to the divide between players and local residents over Donald Trump's election as president.

He also brings you inside the team's games with incisive shots that turn every contest into a story of its own, feeding into the bigger question - which of these kids and which coaches will succeed and why? Netflix's "Last Chance U" digs deep to tell a complex, revealing story about what it really takes to succeed at EMCC and whether that success is truly worth the cost. I'm Eric Deggans.

(SOUNDBITE OF CUMBIAS INSTRUMENTALES CON BANDA SONG, "MAMBO LUPITA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.