By Matt Mueller Culture Editor Published May 04, 2020 at 4:46 PM

It was the best of times, and it was the worst of times for both Michael Jordan and viewers on night three of "The Last Dance," ESPN's 10-part miniseries on the 97-98 Chicago Bulls MJ being awesome.

For the Bulls great, chapters five and six found the Bulls great reaching heights professional sports had rarely seen before or since – but coming with the requisite media pressure and inevitable controversies. And for the audience, Sunday's installments featuring some of the most entertaining and engaging anecdotes of the series thus far, but also showed the doc at its most creatively restricted. For such a sprawling series – "OJ: Made in America" spent almost eight hours trying to contextualize OJ Simpson in American history and race relations; "The Last Dance" is two hours longer on the thesis of "Michael Jordan was really good at sports" – too many moments on Sunday night felt painfully limited, a behind-the-scenes look that too often pulled back the curtain to reveal ... another curtain.

Let's start with the fun stuff, though, as the first hour – the heights of Michael Jordan's fame – was quite a high indeed. Now, that doesn't mean that it was any more focused than the previous chapters; in fact, it might've been the most egregiously distracted part so far, hopping from topic to topic to topic without even the vaguest thematic connective tissue keeping it together save for maybe "MJ being great."

But allow this nitpicker to say: Who cares!

The episode was all over the place – but thankfully, all of those places were captivating, starting with an effectively painful tribute to Kobe Bryant at the open. What should've been a simple note on MJ passing the torch on to the young Lakers great at the 1998 All-Star Game – complete with awesome footage inside the locker room and huddle of Jordan and company talking about this annoyingly scrappy new star who Jordan insists on putting through the ringer in this glorified scrimmage – becomes a surreally sad tribute to Bryant, providing a reverent eulogy to MJ's era months after we've seen the eulogies to his own life. "I'll see you down the road," MJ told Kobe after that All-Star Game fireworks show, blissfully unknowing that road would be far shorter than anyone could've expected. Terrestrial greatness means little to death's unpredictable sway. 

OK, like I said: On to the fun stuff. 

After the prologue, the first hour spryly passes from topic to topic like a team passing the ball around the three-point arc looking for the best shot. Director Jason Hehir hops from MJ's final game at Madison Square Garden – complete with his original Jordan sneakers, now so tight and outdated that Jordan says his feet were bleeding by the final horn – to how he had to be dragged by his mom to meet with Nike, to the 1992 NBA Finals, to the famous Olympic Dream Team and, sure, even some backstory for Bulls supporting cast member Toni Kukoc.

Again, there's not much tying all of this together other than, thankfully, it's all entertaining – even during the sponsored content-esque Nike stop-off, which at least let us revisit some iconic old school advertisements (and, for this Milwaukee fan, comes with a solid Marques Johnson shoutout). Even the requisite clip shows of highlights – in this episode, at the expense of Clyde Drexler and the Portland Trail Blazers in the '92 Finals – are even more exciting than usual, perhaps because Hehir and his editors assemble a wildly amusing portrait of Michael Jordan: the star and the assassin, the performer and the punisher, able to bust out iconic on-court shrugs and blind free throws while also finding any possible reason to hold a grudge and embarrass his foes on the court.

Those foes sometimes included his own teammates – just ask Magic Johnson and the famous Dream Team from the Barcelona Olympics, a gathering of NBA superstars like never seen before. In Sunday night's obvious highlight (well, second only to this man), Johnson and company tell the story of an infamous practice game between the basketball legends, starting as a decent scrimmage until Johnson's side got too far ahead – and too cocky – and Jordan took over the day, leading to Johnson chucking the ball into the seats and realizing the baton has been passed. There was a new alpha among alphas – and it's a great side story told, as with much of "The Last Dance," with good humor and candid interviews where these giants talk more like regular guys, sports fans themselves, reminiscing at the bar rather than the usual stiff cliche-ridden sports sit-downs.

Jordan's first notable act as lead dog of the Dream Team? Decimating soon-to-be teammate Toni Kukoc, a young Croatian star who made the grave mistake of being liked by Jerry Krause. Led by Jordan and Pippen, the Dream Team obliterated Kukoc – a modest, quiet basketball player from a war-torn country – in their first match-up, going out of their way to embarrass him. But at least Kukoc put him a better showing in their next game, saving face with his future teammates ... even though Croatia still lost by a million. As Charles Barkley notes in hour two, there's no shame in losing to Michael Jordan. No use getting mad about losing to a tidal wave.

The Dream Team leads to the start of MJ's nightmares, though, starting with a branding snafu at the gold medal ceremony. The official outfits were Reebok; he would only wear Nike, so he draped himself in an American flag to hide the rival logo. An innocent enough (and ingenious; who's going to get mad at the American flag?) start – but one that starts to reveal the sports giant's constantly brand-conscious voice, one that caused him to turn down speaking out politically, even in a race as egregiously one-sided as the 1990 North Carolina senate contest between Harvey Gantt and Jesse Helms, a loudly racist incumbent who was so toxic, even football coach Lou Holtz got fired years earlier for giving him his support. Still, Jordan stayed out of the fray – complete with the infamous quote, "Republicans buy sneakers too," as rationale. 

The documentary digs into this much-debated aspect of Jordan's career and public persona, even pulling out big-hitter interviews like Barack Obama – now upgraded from "former Chicago resident" to "President" – to discuss his muted social voice. But all the interviews tip-toe around calling Jordan out too hard, walking on eggshells to make sure that nothing corrupts the myth too much. The screen time allocated to an Olympic scrimmage feels easily greater than the time spent on actually digging into the complexities of its subject – and if it's not, you can feel the doc exhale when it gets to go back to clips of people comparing MJ to "a pope or Jesus phenomenon." The critical segments feel like the Giannis and the Bucks taking on the Cleveland Cavs: Sure, they're required to play them, but they're not required to put in a full effort.

Unfortunately, that timid approach poisons the second hour – what should be one of the meatiest chapters of the Michael Jordan story, taking on his long-rumored gambling addiction. Instead, Hehir and company skim through mostly a Wikipedia rundown of the main headlines and characters, cushioning the hard questions in hagiography and highlights.

There are a few fleeting glimpses of digging into the topic, mainly an interview in which B.J. Armstrong talks about how Jordan would go from the big-money games in the back of the team plane to their dollar blackjack hands just so he could say he won their money. Credit where credit is due, Hehir slips a sneaky look at Jordan's headspace with a long sequence showing the superstar desperate to get to the golf course and compete for his teammate's money ... all while the playoffs are just a week away. (Again, imagine the "Scanners"-like Skip Bayless reaction if that was today.) And most essential, there's an extended clip of Jordan pitching pennies against his security team, including one lusciously mulleted crew member who earns the right to say that he took Michael Jordan's money in a game – complete with a celebratory shrug for the ages. 

But in general, "The Last Dance" goes through the motions on Jordan's controversial Atlantic City trip and his connection to the shady Slim Bouler, dutifully hitting the general details before letting Jordan wave everything off before pointing over at a whole lot of '93 playoffs highlights to distract you – certainly much to Phoenix Suns player Dan Majerle's dismay. MJ's anger at the growing media firestorm certainly played a part in his dominating performance in the Finals that year. Still, too much of the second installment plays like some impressive spin on the doc's part, turning an in-depth look into its subject into that part during a job interview when the boss asks you what your worst trait is, and you say, "I work TOO hard" or "I'm TOO dedicated to my job." Jordan's not addicted to gambling; he's addicted to competition – and that makes him better at what he does anyways! To quote another '90s sports icon (in animated form), would you like to hear the terrifying truth or would you like to see me slam some dunks?!

I'm not the only one who would appreciate at least a little more of the terrifying truth to go with the dunks. Esteemed documentarian Ken Burns spoke up this past week about the perceived soft-pedal of "The Last Dance," noting that the partnership between the documentary and Jordan's production company, Jump 23, renders much of its artistic or historical value moot. Those words were hard to avoid rattling in one's mind, particularly in the midst of two hours of filmmaking about Jordan's brand and digging into the former only as far as the latter would allow.

You don't have to be Ken Burns – a filmmaker much more on the academic side of the documentary world – to be often frustrated by "The Last Dance" playing soft defense on Jordan's foibles and painting what feels sometimes like an incomplete picture. And you don't have to be Burns to watch the opening of Sunday night's second half – featuring with Jordan filming a commercial, talking about how actually difficult it is to be like Mike before the camera resets for another take with another version of the line – and think that footage is less about how exhausting it was to be peak MJ and more a reflection on much of Sunday's episodes themselves: candidness, carefully rehearsed and manufactured.

Matt Mueller Culture Editor

As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.

When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.