Sunday marked the end of “The Last Dance,” the five-night, 10-hour sports documentary about the Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan’s sixth and final NBA championship from the 1998 season. It arrived earlier than expected and became appointment TV particularly for sports fans tuning to ESPN2 to watch virtual Formula One races on weekends desperate for something to simulate the thrilling and anxiety -ridden experience of live sports, like Game 7s of an NBA season on pause.
There’s something occasionally exhausting, especially while most of us are stuck at home, about watching yet another thing on Netflix or Hulu or HBO or Disney+ or whatever. With little else on, especially on regular cable, it was there. It was nice having our Sunday night activity preselected for us for five weeks, like in the fall when we’re more likely to watch whatever NBC’s Sunday Night Football game is than not to. It was nice knowing you had to have your TV tuned to the channel by 8 p.m. or risk missing something. (At the very least, you’d miss those excellent opening credits.) It was even nice having commercials. It hasn’t been all that long since you’d have your pick of live Sunday night programming, but the living room experience that came with viewing “The Last Dance” felt like an indulgence from a different generation. (And maybe it is.)
Now that it’s complete, here come the judges to say if it was any good. Where it certainly exceeded my expectations was in being a story about more than it promised. It was as much a history of the Michael Jordan Bulls as the all-access look inside their 1998 season in particular it advertised to be, allowing at least a couple Illinois kids to simultaneously revel in memories of the past and be glued to the self-imposed drama of a year we were really just too young to have remembered so much about.
Whether it was good, in a critical sense, or needed to be 10 hours long did not matter and probably can’t be properly judged right now because we didn’t view it under normal circumstances. It was a welcome distraction at a time when it’s getting harder to organically find them. It did not air at a time when there were many other options. Many of us have nothing but time, so giving two hours on five consecutive Sundays didn’t feel like we were losing more than we were getting.
As a writer myself, I can appreciate the length, same as I can sympathize with Martin Scorsese over his too-long movies. I once wrote 4,000-5,000 words about how the 2001 staff of my college paper covered 9/11. Did the readers want to know about it in so many words? I don’t know; didn’t care, honestly. I loved all of the little anecdotes they gave me and related to them in a way that made it difficult to cut. Passion projects can be like that, and they can become more than what you meant them to be. A documentary about the Chicago Bulls’ 1998 season doesn’t need 10 hours. “The Last Dance”? Who can say, at least yet.
Only time will tell how good the documentary was. Later, when the world returns to normal and the series lands on Netflix, then we’ll be able to decide if its length effects its rewatchability. Every time it aired over the last five weeks, it felt like you were showing up to an event — something we don’t get to do right now. So, no matter its acclaim or critiques in the future, we’ll remember that about it. We’ll remember the way we watched it. And that much was freaking great.