Leagues ahead: why Last Chance U’s final season may be its best yet

Leagues ahead: why Last Chance U’s final season may be its best yet

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o the untrained eye, it may seem as if Last Chance U is going out with a whimper. You can’t help but feel that, after five years slogging through the hardships of underprivileged college American football teams, the creator Greg Whiteley’s head was turned by the high-wire accessibility of his follow-up series, Cheer, and he took his eye off what should have been a gripping conclusion.

The reviews for this season bear this sensation out; a recent ranking of its seasons on the college football site Saturday Blitz put this final year dead last, calling it “vanilla” and “average”. The season, set in a new college with a new coach and unfamiliar players, fell on to Netflix unannounced last month and has picked up minimal buzz. By all accounts, it is a sad end to a once-unmissable show.

But, please, do not let that put you off. I have had time to let season five of Last Chance U soak into my bones a little and, while it is true that this year may lack the smashmouth pyrotechnics of previous years, it feels a bit like the album track you ignore for six months before falling in love with it. It may even count as my favourite run of episodes ever.

It has long been my argument that the series is secretly about parenting. In dealing with troubled youngsters whose time in the college football leagues is their final shot at achieving their potential, its subjects often come with parents who are absent or irreparably flawed. Into this vacuum steps a head coach – an authority figure whom the players glom on to as a kind of paternal substitute.

In its first four years, Last Chance U was broadly about what happens when this faux-parental relationship turns toxic. Coaches Buddy Stephens and Jason Brown were a pair of raging too-masculine brutes who harangued and belittled their players, figuring out weaknesses and using them as weapons in a bid to maintain their puny reputations. Thanks to Stephens and Brown, Last Chance U could be an incredibly stressful watch. It was clamped shut and pulsating with barely contained rage.

In contrast, this series feels like an exhalation. It is set in a college – Laney, in Oakland – that has not staked its entire sense of self-worth on the national success of its football team. There is a story to be told about gentrification, and how it pushes out the people who created the soul of a place, but this is shunted to the background in favour of a simple tale of an average-to-good team doing the best they can on a game-by-game basis. It is a much smaller story than we have seen previously, with markedly lower dramatic stakes.

The school, too, is not a residential one this year. The team isn’t full of kids living together in a bubble of their own success. This influx all commute to school, sometimes two hours each way, and have to hold down jobs to help pay the bills. Some even have kids. There is an underlying element of motivation to the players. Where once you would beat your head against the wall wishing they would take their academic roles seriously, here you are just impressed by their hard work.

But mainly, though, there is the coach. John Beam is a 40-year veteran, and the closest thing the show has ever had to a purely avuncular figure, far from the screaming blood-diarrhoea meltdowns of the previous coaches. He isn’t a benign presence, especially on the touchline, but in comparison with previous years he radiates calm. He jokes with his players, and gives long speeches about how he prefers the carrot to the stick. And the players react beautifully to him, working to impress him without ever living in fear of him. He inspires respect without terror. He is, to return to my grand Last Chance U thesis, the perfect parent.

And that’s what I love about this season of Last Chance U. It feels like a corrective, designed to restore faith in college football. It is a bizarro-world version of the show where everyone retains a modicum of perspective. This is the first year when you wouldn’t hate hanging out with any of the principal characters. Last Chance U has been a bumpy flight, but season five is its smooth landing. Taken on its own, it is comparatively dull. But as the final chapter of a story half a decade in the making, it is beautiful, and life-affirming.