The new season features stories on the Urban Meyer Era Florida Gators, Johnny Manziel, the BALCO scandal, and Jake Paul. It’s probably unintentional but there’s a theme here in that they’re all a bit about “bad boys”—people like Meyer or Paul whose aggression became part of their brand and their success. More than most seasons of “Untold,” it feels like a few punches are pulled this year with some natural follow-up questions ignored and some potential analysis saved for another documentarian. However, these are still all worth your time, whether you’re a sports fan or not. This is a series that tackles sports from a different angle, trying to illuminate the human beings at the center of these massive stories.
Andrew Renzi was an executive producer on “Pepsi, Where’s My Jet?” and “The Curse of Von Dutch: A Brand to Die For,” and so he knows a thing or two about branding, which is at the core of what has made Jake Paul a star. As much of a promoter as he is an athlete, Paul pivoted when his YouTube celebrity status fell apart to become a legitimate fighter. Stories of second chances are common in Hollywood, but Paul’s is more fascinating than most, and the access given to Renzi in “Jake Paul the Problem Child” makes it the best of the new season of “Untold.” It asks fascinating questions about the line between professional athlete and troublemaker, but the truth is that Paul gets people paying attention to a dying sport. There’s also an interesting dichotomy between a public persona that appears to take nothing seriously and an athlete who clearly has trained himself into fighting shape. The film flirts with some issues related to potential abuse by Paul’s father that I wish had been unpacked further as to how that has shaped the young man’s life, but it feels like maybe he’s not ready for that yet. Jake Paul has been a Disney star, a massive internet phenomenon, and now he’s changing the way people look at professional boxing. Mike Tyson himself actually sums him up well when he says, “He’s not a villain, he’s an anti-hero.” You don’t have to like him, but you can’t ignore him.
The chapter of “Untold” that’s likely to get the most attention is “Swamp Kings,” which is the only one this season that’s not feature-film length, unfolding instead over four episodes of television. And what’s funny is it still feels like there’s way more story to tell here given the vibrant personalities and issues regarding Urban Meyer’s coaching style that it arguably doesn’t take seriously enough. Florida Gators superstars like Tim Tebow comment on how seriously Meyer takes his work between scenes of him yelling and swearing at players in locker rooms, players who are often seen in extreme physical duress during workouts, and it feels like maybe there’s a version of this that questions Meyer’s choices a bit more. Meyer is placed a bit too high on a pedestal, especially given his recent flameout in the NFL, but what makes “Swamp Kings” work is the participation by the actual players like Tebow, Brandon Spikes, Brandon Siler, Major Wright, and Ahmad Black. When Meyer speaks, I question how much of it is public image manipulation, but one can sense the truth in Tebow’s regret over not winning another championship or hear the joy in Spikes’ voice when he speaks about Florida highlights. College football fans will eat it up.