Is there anything left to say about The Last Dance, one of the most argued-about television events of the Early Quarantine Period? I think so.
The ten-part docuseries about Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls dynasty of the 1990s gave ESPN its highest viewership for any of its sports films ever when it began airing in March. Over the weeks that it aired there, episodes were analyzed on Twitter in great detail and furious debate ensued on sports yak shows, which I will now summarize in the following two paragraphs:
“Michael Jordan was the greatest of all time.”
“That film was slanted! Everyone knows LeBron is the GOAT.”
But let’s say you’re one of the 300 million or so Americans who didn’t check out The Last Dance the first time around, or even the second time around (it aired later on ABC on Saturday nights). If you’re like me, there’s something about guys yelling at each other about sports — guys who look like they haven’t so much as run around the block in ten years — that makes a person want to avoid whatever it is they’re yelling about.
Well, yesterday The Last Dance dropped on Netflix, all 10 episodes, commercial-free, autoplayable from start to finish. Now that the hubbub has died down, you might want to check it out, even if you’re not a hoops fan, or a sports fan at all. The Last Dance is more than a trip down one sport’s memory lane. It’s a story of how driven, competitive people can build something truly astonishing, in this case a team that wins six NBA championships in eight years, and then just as astonishing, break it up.
This is a story about ambition and how every human being defines it just a little bit differently. When those humans are able to find the commonalities in their quest and pull together, they can achieve great things. But because each of us has a different calculus of what makes us happy, makes us satisfied, and makes us aspire for more, we make decisions that seem, to outsiders anyway, like they’ve lost their minds.
A good example is Michael Jordan’s jaw-dropping decision in 1995 to leave the Bulls and pursue a career in professional baseball. Before I go further, a word about this film’s narrative. Director Jason Hehir uses the Bulls’ 1997-98 season, culminating in their sixth and final NBA title, as the A story. In each episode, however, he rewinds to previous events in the lives of the Bulls players or the previous seasons under Jordan. It’s an easy-to-follow technique that makes The Last Dance effectively a summary of Jordan’s entire career and a brief, pretty much, for the case that he, not LeBron, is the greatest NBA player of all time.
The B story in Episode 7 covers Jordan’s flash retirement and reappearance a few months later in a minor-league baseball uniform. As a Bulls fan living in Chicago in those years, I was as dumbfounded by these moves as anyone. Conspiracy theories bounced across talk radio and the Internet — Michael was pushed out, there was bad blood with management, etc, etc.
Nope. As The Last Dance thoroughly details, Jordan was so distraught by the murder of his father and exhausted with years in the burning spotlight that he needed a change. Here and elsewhere in The Last Dance, what starts out as a sports documentary rapidly shifts into a film about larger questions. Is ambition simply incompatible with happiness? Do people forfeit their status as human beings once they’ve crossed over into the realm of celebrity? Is the mainstream news media ever right about anything that’s not right in front of their noses?
The Last Dance is made up roughly of one-third new interviews, one-third old footage, and one-third never-before-seen film that was shot during the 1997-98 season. A film crew was given basically stalker access, to Jordan and the rest of the Bulls organization that season, it having been widely reported that this would be last for the current team before it was broken up (hence “the last dance”). That footage was never turned into a documentary until now.
As a result, The Last Dance has a fresh, revelatory feel that will satisfy both fans like me, with strong memories of that time, and people who enjoy learning what makes influential people tick. (If you don’t want to wade through all 10 episodes, at least watch Episodes 1, 2, 7, and 10.)
Finally, a word about the Michael-LeBron debate, but not from a sports fan’s perspective. Since the Bulls’ heyday more than 20 years ago, a lot has changed in what we watch on television and how we watch it. Those Bulls games, along with most other NBA games played in the 1990s, aired on free over-the-air television, specifically NBC, which held the rights throughout that decade. (TNT has been airing select games since 1988.) The Nineties were the last time that more people watched broadcast TV than cable TV. It was the last hurrah for mass communications, when networks were still paying attention to total audience ratings rather than how a show did in the 25-34 male demographic.
Ultimately, you can’t compare Michael Jordan to any player who came afterward because it’s impossible to plaster one superstar’s face across all major media at once now. I’m not even sure there is such a thing as a major media outlet anymore. Look at ESPN. Thanks to rampant cord-cutting, it’s gone from being the biggest of big TV networks — capable of throwing billions at the NBA and snatching the rights to games away from NBC in 2002 — to today, where more American homes now have Netflix than ESPN, and more Americans watch Netflix than ESPN. And while ESPN once controlled the agenda of what sports fans watched and argued about, Netflix delivers a different viewing experience to each and every algorithm, er I mean viewer, in its audience.
In that sense, The Last Dance is also a time capsule about mass media’s last dance, the time when we stood around a water cooler talking about our common culture, before management closed the break room and sent us all home.
All ten episodes of The Last Dance are now streaming on Netflix.
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.