Michael Jordan docuseries 'The Last Dance' is more than a TV show. It's a cultural event

In 1998, during the latter part of the last season of his sitcom, Jerry Seinfeld filed a court interview about the major sports dynasty of the era.

“The agreement between” Seinfeld “and the Bulls?” he repeats for the camera before heading to the locker room to greet the game’s star, Michael Jordan. “The show of the ’90s, the team of the’ 90s.”

By the time spring turned to summer, his comparison would be confirmed: Love it or hate it, the series finale of “Seinfeld” became a groundbreaking TV event (76.3 million viewers in total) and Jordan led Chicago to his sixth NBA championship in eight seasons before retiring, not for the last time, at the age of 35.

While the latter forms the backbone of Jason Hehir’s extraordinary new docuseries “The Last Dance” – a co-production of ESPN, the world leader in sports, and Netflix, the world leader in just about everything else, it is the series’ focus to the place Jordan in the broader cultural firmament that suggests its ambition and achievement.

Woven from archive video, in-depth interviews with Jordan and his contemporaries and never-before-seen footage taken by a camera crew embedded with the Bulls for the 1997-98 NBA season, “The Last Dance” jumps between the farewell of the basketball dynasty tour and the arc of Jordan’s remarkable career, with detours in the lives of teammates Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman and coach Phil Jackson.

In the process, the multilayered treatment of what sports leader Bob Costas calls “ one of the most consistent teams in American sports ” emerges as the latest in a series of TV series, fiction and not, to take that decade and its defining figures reconsider. : the period after the Cold War, the period before 9/11 in American life, that was also the last dance of monoculture.

Seemingly cruel and grisly at the same time, the five-week 10-part event comes at a time characterized by the shared experience of the COVID-19 pandemic, in which the vast majority of us reside. To stop the spread of the coronavirus and the sports world is in floating animation. When the first two episodes of “The Last Dance” premiere on Sunday, they will of course compete with other new TV shows, streaming movies, video games, beloved albums, countless books, not to mention TikTok dance challenges, stress baking, doom scrolling, sex. But for the diehard (and good weather) sports fans who miss March Madness, The Masters and the opening day of Major League Baseball, the series can feel like manna from heaven: for now “The Last Dance” is one of the few games in the city.

There’s no shortage of food for anyone who’s able to flutter at what a chunky-accented Chicago fan calls Jordan’s “ poetry on the move. ” In the absence of post-season fever, “The Last Dance” uses the star’s fireworks on the field to approximate the specific intensity of the playoffs – with its outrageous, record-breaking 63 points against the ’86 Boston Celtics, for example, or with the buzzer – better known as “The Shot” against the ’89 Cleveland Cavaliers.

Michael Jordan and Phil Jackson together won their sixth NBA Championship in 1998.

(Jeff Haynes / AFP via Getty Images)

But the series – depending on how it is with the segments of “SportsCenter” and the past broadcasts of yesteryear – is as much about the media landscape that has dragged Jordan over as his athletics or competitive drive. Even the portrayal drama that swirls around the ’97 -98 season has a familiar tabloid feel, like a pure ‘Inside Edition’ special in which the Bulls reflect the tropics of fiction: the epochal hero, his loyal sidekick, the misunderstood rebel, their inscrutable manner. (There’s even some sort of villain in general manager Jerry Krause, although he’s the most underdeveloped and thus unsatisfying of the central figures. Krause died in 2017.)

Hehir and his company have leaned into this corner from the start, with an opera score and a title sequence that emphasizes “sticking back” on points and rebounds; in other words, one of the most fascinating subplots in “The Last Dance” is the bitter rivalry between the Bulls and the Detroit Pistons, which can be understood even if your primary reference point is Sharks versus Jets. For any comparison of Jordan with Babe Ruth or Muhammad Ali, there is another with Oprah Winfrey, Barack Obama, the Beatles, the Pope. McDonald’s sponsors an international basketball exhibition in Paris. Spike Lee appears as Mars Blackmon to promote Nike’s Air Jordans. Gatorade commands us to be “Be Like Mike”.

“It was the first time sport had been culturally sold,” said NBA Commissioner Adam Silver of The Dream Team’s dominant performance at the 1992 Olympics, comparing US exports of sports to those of fashion or music. “You sold Americana.”

And what is modern Americana, other than the sale itself? Such as I once wrote from Jordan’s friend and fellow sports icon Tiger Woods, our nostalgia for the height of monoculture in the mid-90s – where the sitcom finale could attract a quarter of the American population, and Game 6 of the NBA final more then a tenth – cuts both sides. One person’s “break” or “fragmentation” is another person’s hard-won time to shine.

“The Last Dance” responds to this nostalgia and, given the strange, charged moment of its debut, can do more than that: it is not only an ode to the years in which “everyone knew Michael Jordan, as journalist Willow Bay says in the series, as well as an attempt to recapture their magic. As such, while Hehir’s vision isn’t very refined when it comes to race or politics or the long arc of social history, it’s extremely perceptive about celebrities – what makes it, what breaks it, what shapes its character and size. Without downplaying Jordan and the remarkable prowess of Jordan and his teammates, the series tacitly acknowledges that fame, even in sports, is a function of framing, of timing – that what the show of the ’90s and team of the’ 90s in common , as Seinfeld intuitively stated, was primarily the 1990s.

The nature of change means that the phenomenon of Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, such as that of the “Seinfeld” final, will probably never be replicated. But it can be relived, or at least revisited, in the cultural time machine of ‘The Last Dance’.

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