When Cheer catapulted into my world, I was stoked. I’m not an undercover college cheerleading devotee, I just knew the documentary series was a spiritual successor to Last Chance U, which I consider the best show Netflix has ever produced. Across four seasons, two at East Mississippi Community college and two at Kansas’ Independence Community College, I was rocked by the stories of troubled student athletes given a final chance to rehabilitate their college careers. It’s enthralling.
Like Cheer, Last Chance U does not expect prior knowledge from the viewer (after watching both shows, I still could not tell you the difference between a full-full and a fullback). Instead, the docuseries trades on strong archetypes – the psychotically driven coach, the star with prodigious talents and demons to match – whose pathologies are unpacked over the course of each season. It’s from those personalities that broader themes of race and class are laid out, presenting college football as an imperfect escape from the crushing realities of the outside world (while director Greg Whiteley touches on the financial barriers associated with cheer, and conservative Christian coach Monica Aldama‘s guardianship of her gay athletes, I wish Cheer lingered on those narratives just a bit longer).
What feels different is the weight of failure. Cheer highlights college-level cheerleading as the pinnacle of the sport, with the athletes of Navarro College expected to secure yet another national championship before tumbling into the outside world – or cycling back into cheerleading industry as a coach themselves.
The student athletes in Last Chance U are not even close to the peak of their discipline. Most are fighting just for the chance to be admitted (or re-admitted) to a Division 1 school, with the eventual goal of joining the 1.6% of elite college footballers drafted into the NFL each year. This only raises the stakes: losing in Last Chance U does not just mean falling short of prestige. It feels like the severing of a lifeline, a career, the vanishingly slight chance to pull themselves and their communities out of dire circumstances.
This is not to say Cheer is not affecting, that its stars do not suffer. It is, and they do. Whiteley told The Wrap the students of Navarro College were “the toughest athletes I’ve ever filmed,” and I am inclined to believe him. But watching the stars of Last Chance U toil so hard, so far from glory, with such slim chances of ‘making it’ is devastating.
Last Chance U is on Netflix right now. In case you hadn’t picked up on it, I think it’s pretty good.Image: Netflix