Like many Americans in quarantine, I’m adoring ESPN’s The Last Dance, a 10-part documentary series about the final season of the Chicago Bulls dynasty of the 1990s — aka, the last season Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, and Phil Jackson were all part of the same team.
The series is exceptionally well-made, if a touch unwieldy in its structure. (Some of the structural choices are a bit odd on a macro level.) It’s not a genre-defining masterwork like O.J.: Made in America (the most obvious comparison point, as it was also an ESPN project), but it’s fun as hell in a way that makes for the perfect TV diversion. It has big personalities, interesting thoughts on the culture that produced it, and twists and turns aplenty. As someone who knew the broad strokes of the whole Bulls thing, I was pleasantly surprised to see how much more I had to learn.
The “long-form documentary about one thing as a gateway to talk about many things” is one of my favorite forms of TV entertainment, and I’m glad that it’s getting applied, more and more, to the world of sports and entertainment, two fields where this kind of deep dive can be fascinating and compelling without having a sense of being “eat your vegetables” TV. (Anyone who saw O.J., of course, can tell you that by talking about sports and entertainment, you end up talking about everything else in American culture, but don’t tell the anti-documentary snobs that.)
So I wanted to come up with six other things I’d love to see get The Last Dance treatment. I tried to come up with projects I thought might actually have a decent chance of getting made (which is why I matched each to a prospective network). I tried to think of stories that were important, but not of world-shattering importance (i.e. no big news or political stories), with a huge cast of interesting characters and a compelling narrative running throughout them. I also tried to make sure there was enough there there to drive eight to 10 hours of TV, which meant jettisoning some other ideas I had (like the six Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings/Hobbit movies and the making thereof).
So here are my top six contenders. And TV industry, if you want me to work on any of these — just say the word.
One of the things that allows ESPN such access to the subjects it needs for its various documentaries is how central it is to sports coverage in the US. There’s no obvious comparison point when it comes to entertainment journalism. E!, bless it, never became the ESPN for entertainment. Plus, it’s really hard for entertainment documentaries to be made with the kind of remove that this kind of storytelling typically requires. They’re usually promotional product.
Well, here’s my pitch for Peacock to make a 10-part miniseries about must-see TV, then turn it over to a filmmaker with great credentials, give them access to everybody they want to talk to, and offer no restrictions on what they’re allowed to say. This show would unfold over those 10 hours, with each hour devoted to a different NBC Thursday-night sitcom from the beginning of Cheers in 1982 to the end of Frasier and Friends in 2004.
The secret spine of the series would be about the slow dismantling of the American pop culture monoculture, as it splintered into niches. But this would hopefully ask big questions about whether a monoculture is a desirable thing if it’s notably non-diverse, and whether that monoculture was protecting us from something harder to combat. Necessarily, the final episode would be about the program that finally broke up the NBC comedy bloc for several seasons, then went on to have an even darker cultural legacy — The Apprentice.
I really do have a lot of ideas for this one, Hollywood. Call me!
The inevitable follow-up to a miniseries about the Bulls in the ‘90s is a miniseries about the Patriots in the 21st century, but the whole story is maybe too big to boil down into 10 episodes. So, instead, pick a single season and use that as a microcosm to explore the whole Patriots thing, just as The Last Dance centers on the final season the core Bulls team played together. (Can NFL Network allow the sort of editorial distance that ESPN Films regularly allows? I’ll believe it when I see it.)
To my mind, the obvious choice is the season when the Patriots won 18 games leading up to the Super Bowl — the most any team had ever won in history — then lost the Super Bowl in stunning fashion to the New York Giants. It’s a story that encompasses a number of the era’s biggest personalities (including a Peyton Manning who’s lurking just offstage), while also providing a look at two franchises that played out their Super Bowl rivalry under the constant gaze of the media, one because it was the most successful team of its era and the other because it played in the media capital of the world. The Patriots, love ‘em or hate ‘em, are a deeply fascinating American phenomenon, and if you’re a Pats hater, well, hearing about the season when they went 18-1 will likely be enjoyable.
Few figures in American music history that haven’t yet received the full music doc treatment yet are as mysterious as Britney Spears. Does she require a full 10 hour miniseries? I don’t know, but I think there’s enough there. (My hesitancy is less to do with whether Britney deserves this than it is with the fact that even more significant figures like Whitney Houston have already had documentaries about them that are much, much shorter than 10 hours.)
From her early days as a teen whose sexuality was relentlessly marketed to men far older than her to the sad saga of her conservatorship to the time she set her gym on fire, Britney is someone who flirts with all kinds of quintessentially American tales without every being so tied to any of them as to become too obvious. And with Netflix backing it, the producers would surely get the budget and time they would need to make sure they could interview everyone. And I mean everyone. Don’t duck Netflix’s calls, JT.
Look, the making of Julie Taymor’s famously disastrous Spider-Man musical — a show so ambitious in its stuntwork that it left multiple people who worked on it injured and so expensive it needed to run for five years to recoup its producers’ investment (something it didn’t come close to doing) — is a story about many things, like hubris and Broadway’s resistance to popular music forms (this thing had a score by Bono and The Edge!) and the weird career journey of Taymor herself. But what it also has is superheroes, and in a superhero obsessed culture, that might be just enough to propel this thing to a nearby streaming platform, especially when you consider what a good fit this is for Hulu and that Hulu parent Disney owns Marvel Comics, the company that publishes Spider-Man comic books.
I’d imagine this one taking about eight hours, and it would be highly dependent on getting access to behind-the-scenes footage, as well as a look at the famously daring aerial stunts that resulted in so many injuries. It would start with the earliest inception of the idea, loop around to tell the story of Taymor’s long, weird career, and conclude in a place where almost everybody involved with the thing had become disenchanted with it (with Taymor leaving before it opened) — except it went on to become a minor hit (though not a big enough one to recoup the investment).
I almost listed the Patriots idea above as one for ESPN, but what I like about ESPN Films is that it almost always zigs when you expect it to zag. Instead of doing another O.J.-esque project (perhaps about Tonya Harding), ESPN did The Last Dance. And instead of doing another miniseries about a dynasty, its next project should be similarly different in tone, scope, and subject matter.
Consider this a stab at answering that question, then. Considering that ESPN is an American-centric network, the story of the dominance of US women’s soccer on the world stage — and the consequent rise in interest in soccer among girls of all ages (but also the frustration of women’s professional sports continuing to command so little interest from organizations like, well, like ESPN) — feels like a natural fit. You could even maybe center it on two separate teams playing in two very different eras, focusing on the 1999 team that dismantled everyone in the first women’s World Cup to really garner US media attention* and contrasting them with the 2019 team whose every success seemed like a thumb in the eye to the political leadership of its day.
This might be a little too close to the present to really have perspective, but if ESPN is still around in 2029 — boy, I’d love to see this one.
There are a number of long-running TV shows that you could turn into a Last Dance-style miniseries, from The Simpsons to Saturday Night Live. But all of those are going to be far too prone to hagiography. So consider Survivor, a 20-year-old, 40-season franchise that has tons of compelling stories within it, as well as a surprisingly robust look at the ways that reality television reflected larger trends within American culture, sometimes getting out ahead of them and sometimes lagging way, way behind them.
This story honestly might be too big, so I might take the approach of really zeroing in on 10 specific seasons that made the show. But all along, I’d be doing my best to talk about the larger forces at work in the culture that made Survivor the hit it was and that reflected the reality TV world right back at the show. Ideally, this would be a series that didn’t demonize reality TV but that also didn’t let it off the hook. Ideally, this would be a series that pushed viewers to think about how reality TV does and doesn’t reflect us as we really are.
So there are my six ideas. Do you have any miniseries you’d love to see? Tell me in the comments!
*—Due to an editing error (which is also on me, because I edit this thing), the original version of this post incorrectly said that 1999 was the “first” women’s World Cup. It was the third. I regret the error!
What I’ve been up to: This week at Vox, I recommended Angel, War and Peace, DuckTales, and the tremendous novel Little Blue Encyclopedia (for Vivian), which I called the best novel about friendships between trans women that I’ve ever read.
Little Blue is a fictional show that ran for one season on a fictional pay-cable channel, and it seems to be a weird cross between Lost and Gilmore Girls, about a mysterious island full of quirky locals. (To say I would watch this show if it were real and write several essays about how it was misunderstood is an understatement.) Each chapter of the book contains blurbs from the encyclopedia the narrator is writing, intertwined with memories of [her dead friend] Vivian.
Little Blue Encyclopedia understands perfectly how pop culture — and pop culture fandom — can become bound up in our lives inextricably. As the narrator assembles her encyclopedia, memories of Vivian when she was alive start to trickle into the text. Sometimes the narrator is conscious of those memories taking over, and sometimes it happens almost without her having to try. (I think the fact that everybody in this fake TV show seems to be mourning someone or something is pointed, on the part of [the author].)
It’s just that all of these perfectly reasonable arguments are coming from women who don’t hear each other. They keep talking past each other, allowing an easy win to fragment into a mess of infighting and bitterness, and, in the white women’s case, routinely fucking over non-white and non-straight and non-cis women, or just pushing them away into the background. (Bella is horrified that Shirley accepted the endorsement of the Black Panthers; Gloria is miffed that an association with Valerie Solanas might get in the way of hanging out with Andy Warhol.) Meanwhile, something wicked is lurching in from stage right, ready to put a halt to feminist progress for the next decade — and, in some ways, for the rest of these women’s lives.
In the moment, it all comes down to Shirley Chisholm, the woman who most concretely embodies the promise and the hopes of her movement, watching the women she trusted abandon her, one by one. This is why I started sobbing, in the middle of this episode, and why I never fully stopped: When Shirley Chisholm stands at her podium, in front of hundreds of women, telling them that “someone had to do it first,” she sounds so completely alone.
Watch me: I’m going to be writing way more about Mrs. America at Vox, but it’s honestly one of the best things I’ve seen in a bit. If you’re not watching this and The Last Dance, you’re not watching, well, most of what I’m watching on TV. And both are pretty readily available to most American streamers.
And another thing… You don’t need me to tell you about the goodness of the podcast You’re Wrong About, since basically everybody in the world told me to listen, and I put it off until this week. But it’s so good, and it avoids the thing I like least about these “the two hosts talk about a story they’ve barely researched” shows, which is that the two hosts really fucking do their research (or, rather, one of them does, and the other asks interesting questions and offers pithy asides). I’ve learned a lot from the handful of episodes they’ve done, and they should have me on to do an episode about the so-called Moonlighting curse (which isn’t real).
This week’s reading music: “The Last Dance” (cover) by Nicholas Brittell
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