Netflix’s Last Chance U, which returns for its fourth season on Netflix Friday, has always, to its benefit, prodded at questions bigger than sports: like whether or not we can fundamentally change who we are.
But during episode six—the more-than-aptly-titled “Sh t Show”—infamous Coach Jason Brown and the Independence Pirates are losing another game, and he’s in the middle of one of his signature tirades, ranting about why he’s going to boycott the entire state of Iowa. Of course, I’m fully in at this point—it’s objectively great TV, maybe Last Chance U’s best season yet. Then it hit me, what Last Chance U has been prodding at since Season One: Would we rather watch winners, or losers?
If you’re not familiar with the show: Last Chance U follows junior college football (JUCO) teams in the middle of nowhere America, documenting guys trying to play their way into a big-time D-1 school where, hopefully, they can get on an NFL team’s radar. After spending two seasons with East Mississippi Community College, Last Chance U moved on to the Independence Community College Pirates for Season Three—a long-suffering program whose new hire, the walking PC nightmare Jason Brown, led to their first winning season in 10 years.
With that, you’d expect some real Rudy action in Season Four, because 10 minutes into the first episode, it looks like the longtime underdogs have a national championship run in them. Coach Brown is scrolling through Twitter, pleasantly reading love letters from Last Chance U fans. Linebacker Bobby Bruce is back on campus, looking like he’s finally ready to make a leap in his game. And there are some new faces with genuine NFL potential, including defensive end Kailon Davis, a charmer who should be an instant fan-favorite.
But somehow, in a show that’s known for its on-screen dumpster fires, things go downhill quickly—making the newest season of Last Chance U the most insane one yet. Season Four finally explores what losing really means, to both to the losers, and us—the ones gazing at all the misfortune season to season.
Over the course of the new eight episodes, you’ll see grown men call each other “slapdicks” and scream at each other to the point of tears. You’ll see a dude get pummeled, go to the sidelines, and say, “I died for a good 15 seconds.” And it’ll be the first time you’ve seen a Natty Light can since your freshman year of college. Last Chance U has always had a darkness to it, but setting a montage of the Pirates wrestling each other and partying the night before a game to the tune of Waylon Jennings’s “Shine” is a masterclass in documentary filmmaking.
This season of Last Chance U, thankfully, manages to keep its best parts intact amidst all of the dysfunction—especially the off-field action. English professor LaTayna Pinkard is back—as is her beloved book club—and is still dishing out John Keating-isms to the players in her classes. The trips to players’ hometowns are just as affecting as in prior seasons, too—watching wide receiver Marquise King point out drug houses in his neighborhood reminds you what these guys are playing for. And Season Four might be the only reality show I’ve seen with a bottle episode—the end of the Bobby Bruce’s saga is Last Chance U’s best one yet.
Near the end of the season, the filmmakers visit the small town’s bakeries and diners, interviewing residents who are against the football program for one reason or another. Then Independence’s radio announcer, Jeff Carpenter, repeats the old cliché: “Everybody loves a winner.” But do we, in the golden age of Real Housewives?
At its core, Last Chance U is a show about how every loser has the potential to become a winner, but Season Four turns it back on the town of Independence, and by extension, the viewers at home. Yeah, it’s kind of funny when Brown starts heckling the referees—but at what point is reality TV just straight voyeurism? There’s a moment when one of Independence’s star players suffers a major concussion and has a tantrum after the game (he later says that he doesn’t remember this, which is terrifying for obvious reasons). One of his teammates, who’s restraining him, says, with cameras pointed at them, “This the shit they want!”
After three seasons, we finally see what happens when the last chance promised in show’s name runs out. In its darkest and lightest moments, Last Chance U has the willingness to directly ask its audience: What makes better TV? Winning or losing?