ESPN's "The Last Dance" was extremely flawed - and exactly what we needed
Let us retire ESPN's "The Last Dance" in a way befitting of Michael Jordan: with a seemingly random and unexpected detour to baseball.
Bucky Dent was not an exceptional player. His career .247 batting average with 40 home runs won't impress anyone, and his 423 RBI wouldn't even put him inside the top 1,000 players. And yet, we remember Bucky Dent. For one week in October of 1978, Dent hit like a mad man for the New York Yankees, hitting .417 in the World Series and, most famously, hitting a clutch three-run homer against the rival Boston Red Sox in a key tie-breaker game and earning the Yankees a lead they would never give back – as well as earning himself a profane new middle name from anyone who's ever lived in Massachusetts. Bucky Dent was rarely great, but when the Yankees were in dire times, he was exactly what they needed.
ESPN's "The Last Dance" was the Bucky Dent of entertainment.
In a vacuum, the documentary is merely OK, a totally adequate hagiographic highlight reel that spent close to ten hours on the already inarguable thesis that a famously great basketball team with a famously great player was, indeed, great. It was unfocused, bloated and blatantly compromised by its star's influence behind the scenes – something you didn't have to be Ken Burns to notice. It was both somehow too long and not enough, falling short as a doc about Michael Jordan and falling even shorter as a doc about its often ignored title subject, settling on the greatest hits and Gatorade psychology.
And yet, "The Last Dance" was perfect – like stumbling on a McDonald's burger after wandering the desert hungry, remarkably nourishing despite offering little of nutritional value.
So while the Bulls' "Last Dance" ended on top, ESPN's "The Last Dance" ended at its worst, turning mostly into an NFL Films season recapper going through MJ and company's final two Finals visits – both against the Utah Jazz with a significant road bump the second time versus the Indiana Pacers. Director Jason Hehir's final chapters still have some meaty interview moments – from Jordan implying that the flu from his notorious "Flu Game" was actually food poisoning from eating an entire tainted SLC pizza to Jordan explaining 14 more secret petty grudges – or gems dug up from the series' once-ballyhooed unseen behind-the-scenes footage, like a playfully profane postgame hug between MJ and Larry Bird or witnessing the difference between how a camera-savvy Jordan and an energetic Kerr handle a discreet play call on the bench.
Those moments were frustratingly few and far between on Sunday night, though, as the final chapters became mostly a highlight showcase from the three series. Interviews felt at a minimum – insightful ones even less so – and while a detour in chapter nine about Steve Kerr and his tragic family history is emotional, it doesn't flow with the doc. (Maybe it would've been a better fit in the last episode, talking about Kerr and Jordan's practice fight only to reveal this rare connection that they never spoke about.)
To end it all, the last episode locks in entirely on the 1998 NBA Finals – which, sure, was an exciting and generally competitive series, but wasn't some epic battle against some grand rival. Sure, Jordan held a grudge against Karl Malone, Bryon Russell and the Jazz – but Jordan seemingly held a grudge against most oxygen-consuming lifeforms, so that didn't make them special. The Eastern Conference Finals from the chapter prior has more heft with the Pacers pitted as rivals, and with more interviews to fill in the gaps and perspectives. Ending with the Jazz feels like how any story about the 1980 "Miracle on Ice" hockey team has to technically end with not the win over Russia, but the following game against Finland.
You can't blame history for not writing a finale with enough pathos – but you can blame "The Last Dance" for leaving such significant holes in its storytelling in clutch time. MJ's controversial "push-off" against Russell gets no discussion beyond Jordan and Bob Costas hand-waving any debate away (surely it wouldn't be hard to find a Jazz player who thinks otherwise) while an emotional sidebar about one of Jordan's favorite security members is weirdly tossed in without any real follow-through. Speaking of a lack of follow-through, Jordan's bizarre conspiracy theory that he was poisoned by a highly unusual quintet of pizza delivery guys gets even more bizarrely abandoned. How does one not dig into that?! And while we're asking questions, how does one include interviews with Jordan's children in the final chapter without realizing that the audience will connect that we've learned nothing about this aspect of our subject's life.
Most egregiously, after spending 45 minutes on a competitive if unremarkable Finals showdown, "The Last Dance" saves almost no time for discussing the aftermath. Maybe five minutes are left at the end for the official breaking apart of the dynasty, for putting their work in context and reflection – the assumed point of this documentary named after their final season – which is about the same amount of time a 50-point blowout receives. How did the players feel going their separate ways – especially in no part of their own on-court performance? How do they feel about the economics of the game that forced their split? And why the hell did Michael Jordan come out of retirement to play for the godforsaken Washington Wizards of all places?
Save for one of the doc's patented MJ iPad reaction shots as then-owner Jerry Reinsdorf, there's a massive emotional and storytelling hole at the end of "The Last Dance." To sprint out the door, leaving the audience with a shallow final "And then they won," takeaway and several unanswered questions after ten parts and nine hours of material, makes one want to hold a grievance Michael Jordan would be proud of.
And yet, despite all its storytelling shortcomings and carefully brand-managed insights, I can't hold a grudge against "The Last Dance." For one, worse things have happened to a person than having to watch awesome highlights from an awesome player with an awesome soundtrack. But most of all, during an unprecedented time in history when we were deprived of sports, of the ultimate escapism, "The Last Dance" provided the thrill of competition and athleticism once again. With entertainment valves brought to a halt and plugged dry, "The Last Dance" gave us something to quench our thirst. And during this strange limbo period when all of our community centers and gathering places have been temporarily shuttered for the time being, these ten chapters of rare appointment viewing brought a sense of community back, with everyone cheering, laughing, sharing stories and bonding together. At a time when we've never been more separate, even when without an outbreak's help, "The Last Dance" made audiences a collective – the energy of a crowd even when crowds are not allowed. For five weeks, Hehir's doc and Jordan's still snarling competitive fire was an IV refilling audiences with what they were lacking – sure, no more but not less either.
Can good timing alone make "The Last Dance" good? Not quite. By the end, it's incomplete and insubstantial, an engaging and compelling victory lap at most. But good timing can make the humdrum a hero, a memory out of the mediocre. "The Last Dance" may not stand the test of time, but it will be remembered for all time for what it provided in this vital moment. And that's worth something. Just ask Bucky Dent.
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