ESPN's 10-part Michael Jordan documentary "arrived in a singular moment, when the watching of a nostalgic piece of art became a shared ritual, out of necessity: with the NBA playoffs still suspended during the COVID-19 pandemic, reliving the 1990s, for basketball fans, is better than no basketball at all," says Sean Gregory. "But there was something disheartening about seeing the series, for a fifth straight Sunday, being covered like a major sporting event during the 11 p.m. Sportscenter that followed each pair of episodes. Or knowing that ABC will dedicate a full hour of its prime-time broadcast block on Tuesday evening to air an After the Dance special hosted by Stephen A. Smith. The program promises to give viewers an 'inside look' at the series, and NBA players will talk about their takeaways from the show. This speaks to something more than just ESPN’s typical excessive promotion of its programs. The fact is, people are still so desperate for sports distractions that they’ll not only watch a documentary serving as a stand-in for live sports. They’ll watch a 'making-of' special about the documentary serving as a stand-in for live sports. The Last Dance delivered on its promise to keep audiences engaged and entertained. But I so look forward to the day where we no longer need a Last Dance."
Michael Jordan is a one-dimensional character, and watching 10 hours of him was exhausting: "The doc paints a portrait of an NBA superstar who is a deeply flawed, seemingly deeply unhappy man who became the greatest ever by combining incredible basketball skill, an unquenchable work ethic and a borderline personality disorder," says Will Leitch. "Man, I loved watching him play. But by the finale, when he was inventing yet another fake villain for a ridiculous, fanciful conspiracy theory that his famous 1997 'flu game' was the result of Jazz fans' poisoning his pizza, I was ready for Jordan to go back to the memory bin for a while. Nostalgia is a nice place to visit, but you don't want to live there. Indeed, these final two episodes made it clear what the first eight hinted at: There is no mystery to Michael Jordan. He is a one-dimensional character: exacting, bullying, brilliant and insatiable, a man who cared about winning so much, and only about winning, that there was no room for anything or anyone else in his life. Name one thing about, oh, Jordan's family after watching The Last Dance. Or his emotional inner life. Or any biographical detail outside of basketball. Where did he go to relax? Did he ever worry that he hurt people? Did he have a dog? The Last Dance is 10 hours of Jordan-endorsed and -approved hagiography, to be sure, but I'm not sure it could have ever been anything else. Director Jason Hehir had a void at his film's center, and the only thing he could fill it with was hazy remembrance."
The Last Dance proves there is no getting to know "the real Michael Jordan": "Or, more precisely, this is who he is: an emotionally walled-off, d*ckish, phenomenal basketball player who doesn’t have much to give off the court," says Joel Anderson. "The big question I had going into The Last Dance was, 'Is there anything more to Michael Jordan than basketball?' If this documentary is the final word on his legacy, the answer is: apparently not." Anderson also wonders why The Last Dance completely avoided Jordan's two years with the Washington Wizards after justifying his tyranny as an important motivational tool. "His talent and drive were supposed to be a model for the rest of us civilians, from the court to the boardroom to the warehouse," says Anderson. "'Be Like Mike' was never about developing a midrange jumper and defensive intensity. But Jordan sincerely didn’t give a sh*t about anything but the scoreboard."
The supporting cast is what made The Last Dance compelling over 10 hours: "The Last Dance was here to tell you that Jordan was the greatest thing ever and he had to be a jerk to be good and he was a master at creating motivation," says Jimmy Traina. "The show successfully got its point across each Sunday evening. But throughout the series, it was often someone other than Jordan who provided the most memorable quote or most memorable scenes."
The Last Dance succeeds as a time capsule: "I watched with the kind of nervous energy you always have about something that’s ending, a feeling that’s become all too rare for me when it comes to TV," says Danette Chavez. "Unless I’m recapping a show, I usually watch stuff weeks or months ahead—that is not a humblebrag, because there are times when I wish I were watching something with people on a weekly basis, especially since watching Bulls games as a family was such a huge part of my adolescence. The time between Last Dance viewings has also given me a chance to think about the goals of the docuseries and my expectations of it. We’ve discussed the control Michael Jordan had over its creation and likely the final product (his production company was involved in the making of The Last Dance). As a documentary, it didn’t really offer anything new, Michael Jordan memes aside. It really only served to burnish Jordan’s reputation, not only as the all-time great, but also someone who remains enigmatic to the general public. I loved indulging in his pettiness, but while it’s well-made and moving, The Last Dance primarily succeeds as a time capsule."
Director Jason Hehir says Jordan was adamant that The Last Dance not be the definitive documentary of his life: “He doesn’t want to watch a documentary that is a retrospective of his life, because he’s only 56," says Hehir. "And he has a lot of life to live. I think that it’s difficult for him to imagine himself as anything except the Michael Jordan that we all remember. The statue, the logo. So I had to be careful with the wording of that question, because I didn’t want to say, ‘When you’re dead and gone, how do you want to be remembered in 100 years?’ I’m sure in his mind, he thinks, ‘I could live to be 156. If anyone could do it. I can.'"
Hehir doesn't expect to speak to Jordan again after The Last Dance: “It’s completely professional,” he says of developing a rapport with the NBA icon. “I’ll probably never speak to Michael again after this. That’s not the relationship that we have, but he needed to know that he could trust me and he needed to know that we were in a safe space when we had these conversations. What you’re seeing there is comfortable Michael.”