Was ‘The Last Dance’ overrated? We duke it out
“The Last Dance,” ESPN’s 10-part documentary series about Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls’ dynasty of the 1990s, has dominated certain quarters of the virtual watercooler (see: sports Twitter) since it premiered last month. But that attention hasn’t come without criticism from the likes of filmmaker Ken Burns — who raised an eyebrow at Jordan’s close involvement in the production — and writers Dave Zirin and Joel Anderson — who questioned the series’ relatively gentle treatment of its subject.
Following Sunday’s series finale, The Times’ national basketball writer Dan Woike, Lakers and Clippers reporter Broderick Turner, television staff writer Greg Braxton and television editor Matt Brennan convened to discuss whether it was worth all the fuss.
The final episodes of the ESPN Michael Jordan documentary ‘The Last Dance’ aired on Sunday night. Here are the biggest takeaways.
Matt Brennan: Gentlemen, after five weeks, 10 hours and countless tweets, “The Last Dance” is at an end. At the outset, I wrote a piece speculating that the combination of its quality, its subject matter, widespread self-isolation and the near-absence of live sports due to the COVID-19 pandemic would make it a cultural event. Since I’m not right about much, I’ll take credit for being right about that. Over the course of the season, though, the “quality” factor has come into question. So I put it to you now, to start the music on our own last dance: Was this thing any good? Was it a classic you’ll re-watch, nostalgic, during the next global pandemic? Was it mere hagiography? Was it trash? None/all of the above?
Dan Woike: In so, so, so many ways, I was the perfect target for this documentary. I grew up in Chicago in the time of Jordan, idolizing him. The nostalgia lands really hard — all I need to do is hear the first notes of the Bulls’ intro song and I’ve got goosebumps. And, as someone who has had basketball taken away from him, it feels so good, even for two hours a week, to lose myself in basketball again.
But compared to the very best sports documentaries — “Hoop Dreams” is the best — what does “The Last Dance” tell us? That it’s hard to be the most famous person alive? That Michael Jordan is motivated by pettiness? That Dennis Rodman wore out Carmen Electra? I don’t feel like it has anything to say about society at large, which means it can’t be on the level of the docs — “Hoop Dreams,” “O.J. Made in America,” “Two Escobars” — that do.
This isn’t to say that I haven’t loved it. I have. Hearing Michael Jordan tell his own story, in a way, has shown us some of Michael Jordan’s biggest flaws. I’ve loved the grudges, the cussing, the tequila next to him disappearing. But I could watch “Hoop Dreams” every year. I don’t know when I’m coming back to this.
Did we expect too much? Did it deliver? Why was Justin Timberlake interviewed?
Greg Braxton: Daniel is on to something. For me, the measure of a great movie, play, documentary, whatever, is whether it makes me want to revisit it again down the line. “The Last Dance” accomplishes its mission in excellent fashion — the game highlights, the history of that era and particularly the revelatory interviews with a sports icon who has rarely opened himself up. But I don’t feel it rises to the level of great documentaries that I would want to watch again. “O.J.: Made in America,” “Hoop Dreams,” “When We Were Kings” and others have a deepness, a freshness, an excitement or a certain something that offers rewards and insights on multiple viewings. I felt that way immediately after seeing “O.J.,” “When We Were Kings,” even “Kobe Bryant: Muse” to some extent, though I would not necessarily put that documentary into the top ranks of the ones I mentioned previously.
With “The Last Dance,” I’m one and done. When I previewed episodes before airing on my iPad, I did not feel particularly drawn to watch them again when they aired on my large-screen TV, even if it did add to the experience on a few occasions. I can certainly see myself recommending “The Last Dance” to anyone and everyone. But at this point, I can’t imagine a circumstance where I would choose to watch it again.
Brennan: Let me play devil’s advocate here. I would tend to agree that this falls short of the level of the award-winning, era-defining titles you both cite. But I am not sure I buy that it doesn’t say anything about society at large. In a way, the ultra-capitalist tabloid frivolousness of it all perfectly captures its mid-'90s historical moment, when the economy was riding high, celebrity scandals fueled nightly TV programs like “Entertainment Tonight” or “Inside Edition,” and you could pretty much count on everyone watching the NBA Finals in the given year.
As I wrote at the outset, “The Last Dance” crystallizes this post-Cold War, pre-9/11 moment in the sun for America and American culture around the world, even if we see that moment as pretty vapid in retrospect. I think that carries a harder degree of difficulty than y’all give it credit for. What say you, BT?
Broderick Turner: More than anything, the documentary was a reminder how dominating Michael Jordan was as a basketball player and personality and how worldwide he became without any social media during his reign. The joke used to be that the NBA was actually the MBA (Michael Basketball Assn.). He ruled the league and it was evident during the series. The league grew because of him and the Bulls. Having covered Phil Jackson when he coached the Lakers, the series made it easy to see why he was able to deal with so many different characters.
It didn’t bother Phil that Dennis Rodman went to Las Vegas during the season. Who allows a player to do that? And Rodman, oh man, this dude was/is special and so important to the series. Scottie Pippen remains the most underrated No. 2 guy in the history of the NBA.
Every Sunday “The Last Dance” made for interesting conversations all week long.
Docs about Kobe Bryant, Formula One racing and even rock climbing will fill the void left by ESPN’s series about Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.
Woike: I think BT brings up a great point about Scottie — even in this story, he’s overshadowed again by MJ. We see him make some great plays, we see him grit through Game 6 in the 1998 NBA Finals. But we’ll probably think more about him staying on the bench against the Knicks, about coming down with migraines. It’s not fair. Scottie was too good to be remembered for a small handful of failures.
Brennan: So what’s the final verdict? Was “Last Dance” overrated, underrated or just right?
Turner: In my humble opinion, it was just right and obviously at the right time. As a Michael Jordan and Bulls fan, it was just a reminder of their greatness and a display of why the NBA promotes its stars unlike other sports leagues. And the soundtrack was excellent all the way through. Music and sports have always been linked. And from MJ to Rodman to Jackson to Pippen to Jerry Krause, the characters were compelling, which made for the high interest.
Woike: I think “The Last Dance” was just right. I think there are some deserved criticisms — the management of the timeline, the absence of Jordan’s first wife, Juanita, the hero worship — but in so many ways, it was the perfect content at the perfect time. It was an incredible distraction from a scary world, baked with nostalgia, an amazing soundtrack and a narrator willing to bury anyone while telling his version of the facts. Like I said earlier, I’m not sure how often I’ll re-watch “The Last Dance,” but when we’re hopefully on the other side of this pandemic, I’ll think of the series and fondly remember how much joy it gave me.
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