Director Greg Whiteley has created a franchise of acclaimed sports docuseries for Netflix, first with Last Chance U, the ongoing series about community college football teams now coming to an end after five seasons; the sister series, Cheer, which shifted focus onto a junior college’s winning cheerleading squad; and the upcoming spinoff, Last Chance U: Basketball.
While Last Chance U has cultivated a dedicated following with its mix of character-driven storytelling and Friday Night Lights appeal, Cheer proved to be an unexpected smash hit, when it debuted in January. Since then, members of the Navarro College team and coach Monica Aldama have become media sensations, and on Tuesday, the series garnered six Emmy nominations, including one for Outstanding Unstructured Reality Program and another for Whiteley for Outstanding Directing for a Reality Program.
“When you start making these things, you’re not thinking of awards,” Whiteley tells ET. “So it was strangely satisfying, mainly because there are these people that will read this and take note of it and they reach out and they just send you congratulations all day long and it just feels like your birthday.”
But the most satisfying part for Whiteley is all the attention paid to the likes of Gabi Butler, Jerry Harris, La’Darius Marshall, Lexi Brumback and Morgan Simianer, who ended up becoming the breakout stars of the season. “Here are these people that you've gotten to know so well and in most of their instances, they have had difficult lives and they have struggled through a lot to get to where they are. And to see the world adore them the way that they did as the show rolled out was so great,” he says. “It was so fun.”
The director adds, “In many instances, we got to be with them as it was blowing up. And so, just to watch someone’s life be validated in that way, at least that portion of their life, was really great.”
While speaking to ET the day the nominations were announced, Aldama praised Whiteley for bringing Cheer to life. “This is his vision, this is his baby,” she said. “Hu put together such an incredible team and honestly, their work is just so good that they deserve every single one of these Emmys.”
And when it comes to the possibility of doing another season, the coach is on board. “I think the whole world needs more Cheer in their life right now,” she said, adding that nothing has been formally discussed. Reiterating that point, Whiteley adds, “I don't really have anything to say about a season 2. It feels like we're still in the wake of celebrating season 1.”
In the meantime, Whiteley is making sure Last Chance U closes out on a high note with its fifth and final season, Laney, documenting the football team led by coach John Beam at Laney College in Oakland, California.
After spending four seasons at two rural campuses, East Mississippi Community College and Kansas’ Independence Community College, the director says “in an effort to paint with a different brush, we wanted to go someplace urban.” Despite the change in location, Laney continues in the tradition of “telling stories in the way that we had learned how to tell stories through verite documentary filmmaking,” he says, adding that each season features “a cast of characters that are super interesting.”
While the series has proven to be a success, Whiteley says, “I don't think it ever occurred to us that the show would and have the impact that it did, that it would last five seasons, that we would bounce around to multiple locations and then spin off and do a basketball version of that show. There would be no Cheer without the first season of Last Chance U.”
And speaking of the newest spinoff, Last Chance U: Basketball is set for a 2021 debut and will follow the team at East Los Angeles Community College during their 2019-2020 season.
Whiteley says the shift in focus came purely out of his and the team’s love for the sport. “We also thought there isn’t any reason why basketball should be any less interesting than football,” he says, adding that “the fact that you can see people’s faces, you can read emotion during a game is something you can’t do in football. And so we were curious to see if we could crack that sport and shoot it aesthetically in a way that breaks new ground.”
Last Chance U: Laney is now streaming on Netflix.