Entertainment

ESPN's Michael Jordan Docuseries 'The Last Dance' Is the Best Thing on TV Right Now

You can't stop it. You can only hope to contain it.

michael jordan
Andrew D. Bernstein

The NBA playoffs were supposed to start last week. Baseball games should be happening around the country. But nearly every sports industry has been halted to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus. So what's a fan to do? ESPN relaunched The Ocho to broadcast weird-ass competitions. They also broadcast the NBA HORSE Challenge, a tournament featuring bad visuals and trick shots. But so far nothing truly satiated ravenous fans. Luckily, The Last Dance premiered last night.

The Last Dance is ESPN's eagerly anticipated 10-part docuseries about Michael Jordan and the 1997-1998 Chicago Bulls season. Directed by Jason Hehir, it's a sprawling, detailed dose of '90s nostalgia that scratches itches for both feats of athletic greatness and high drama. That is to say, even if you're not obsessed with basketball, you'll probably find something to love in here.

Why The Last Dance is so special 

Access. Access. And more access. Michael Jordan has largely retreated from public life in recent years, but he conducted eight hours of interviews with Hehir. Sitting against a gorgeous backdrop, with a glass of liquor to his side, Jordan talks candidly about his experiences in his final, storied season with the Bulls, which would win the franchise's sixth NBA title that year. Plenty of other key figures serve as talking heads as well: Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, coach Phil Jackson, owner Jerry Reinsdorf, and even former Chicago resident Barack Obama. The first two episodes jump back and forth in time, offering both a walk up to the central season, detailing the conflict between the players and Bulls' general manager Jerry Krause, as well as the backstory of Jordan and his teammates. The second episode shifts focus to Pippen and his negotiations with management for fair pay.

But the access is also about the archival material. Hehir was granted the right to use never-before-seen footage that NBA Entertainment captured during the lead up to the 1997-98 season, assuming that it would be Jordan's last. But there was a catch. Adam Silver, the current NBA commissioner and then head of NBA Entertainment, essentially gave Jordan the right to say when and now the footage could be used. "Our agreement will be that neither one of us can use this footage without the other's permission," Silver said, according to an ESPN report. "It will be kept -- I mean literally it was physical film -- as a separate part of our Secaucus [New Jersey] library. Our producers won't have access to it. It will only be used with your permission." Reportedly, a bunch of filmmakers expressed interest in turning it into a documentary over the years, among them Spike Lee and Danny DeVito. Ultimately, producer Michael Tollin, inspired by O.J.: Made in America, sold Jordan on the idea of making a lengthy series, and enlisted Hehir, whose previous credits involve 30 for 30 installments like The Fab Five, which centered on the University of Michigan's freshman phenoms in the early 1990s.

michael jordan
ESPN

Is the Michael Jordan documentary hard-hitting? 

Having only seen two episodes, the question remains how deep The Last Dance is going to dig. Access comes with a price, and that price might be that you're not necessarily getting the most scandalous or controversial version of this documentary possible. Jordan's history of gambling is alluded to in the early hours, but it's not really explored, and his prickly persona off the court toward his teammates is both visible but also largely unspoken. It remains to be seen how deep The Last Dance will get into the reasons behind Jordan's switch to baseball. (Fingers crossed there's at least some discussion of Space Jam.) Meanwhile, over at Slate, Nick Greene has already pointed out at least one imbalance. Krause, the main antagonist of the narrative, is no longer alive to offer his side of the story.

Does it have jokes? 

Yes, just take a look at Barack Obama's chyron. (Also, admittedly, the '90s fashion can be extremely funny at times.)

How can I watch it? 

Alas, The Last Dance is not bingeable all in one sitting, unless you wait until all 10 episodes have aired. ESPN is rolling it out airing two episodes every Sunday for the next four weeks, through May 17. The new episodes will begin airing at 9 p.m. each night, but will be preceded by the prior two installments, in case you need a refresher or just have nothing else to watch. (Outside the U.S., it's debuting on Netflix.) There are also two versions of The Last Dance you can watch: The first, airing on ESPN, is uncensored, but there's a more family friendly cut airing on ESPN2 at the same time.

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.