The Gods of fate reaching elbow deep inside your chest cavity, scrabbling around inside to find your soul isn’t something you expect to see played out on the world’s premier streaming service. Neither is the intention to rip it out and tear it into a thousand tiny pieces that will float away on a stiff north sea wind.
And yet, here we are barely two minutes into episode one, season three of Sunderland ‘Til I Die watching Patrick Bauer prodding home in the 2019 playoff final.
Those of a nervous disposition or suffering from PTSD would be well advised to skip this bit. However - spoiler alert - it doesn’t get much better, at least not immediately.
And so with much fanfare and pageantry, the much anticipated third (and final?) season has hit our screens. The previous two were tragicomedies of Shakesperian proportions; in fact the big man himself would probably have chucked the scripts for those on the fire in his thatched cottage, dismissing them as “o’er wrought with unpregnant drivel.”
What we’ve all come to realise about it is that despite STID being made by Sunderland fans, it isn’t necessarily for Sunderland fans. You can see the logic; there’s no doubt it has benefitted the club, providing a much bigger profile than it would otherwise have enjoyed. It is really for three groups: Sunderland fans who find pleasure in rewatching their pain, fellow supporters in the UK who know what happened and think “great, it got worse”, and international fans who don’t know what happened but sure would like to find out.
So we must therefore accept that no, not everyone knows KLD only owned 41% of the club - and that yes, it would be appropriate to place this utterly jaw dropping piece of news in the series where it was. I have to say, it made me laugh out loud, because clutching at the pearls when this bombshell was revealed I was not. Then again, maybe someone in Ushuaia might have slopped their dinner all down their front when they found out, I don’t know.
And this is the problem with the opening episode; it doesn’t really tell you anything you didn’t already know, or crucially provide you with any sort of insight you would find surprising, or hook you in because of some amazing access. I suspect there is a reason for this, though. The essential issue is that in the early parts of the series the production company, Fulwell ‘73, came to the party far, far too late.
To begin with, two and a half years pass in the blink of a TV eye with no explanation. They basically joined the conversation in the middle of a sentence, and it took far too long to work out what the hell was going on - and that’s speaking as someone like everyone else who lived through it. Even the title of the episode, “Something to throw your hope into” doesn’t make sense - because I don’t think they really grasped some of the storylines at play. Should have just called it “January blues” or something like that.
Well, what was happening was Sunderland were in turmoil. Battered at Bolton and about to jettison Lee Johnson. Yet we hear nothing really of the narrative around that - and next to nothing at all from Johnson, who despite what you might think of his abilities, would have made great TV in a long form documentary format.
Perhaps the most egregious moment was when the spectre of dodgy editing reared its head once more. Remember the first season with all the in game cutaways which showed reactions of Simon Grayson, seemingly to the chance we had all just seen on TV? Except of course they were taken from other matches. It’s a technique which I’ll charitably say is at best misleading, and one I would never ever dream of doing myself. Well, post-Bolton we see LJ flip the bird seemingly at a Sunderland fan and he walks off to survey the damage of perhaps the most humiliating defeat in the club’s history.
Except that isn’t quite true, is it? Of course that particular incident happened following the Oxford United home defeat a full month before the Bolton game. It was reported on by the Sunderland Echo here and you can see a video of it here. But no matter as long it helps to tell the story, right? How is it the case that not enough was filmed that this had to be used? What kind of access was actually given?
The first episode presents as a muddled, archive laden, flabby storytelling of the second half of Sunderland’s season, mixed with a couple of set piece interviews. It should have been driven by either the fan contributors, the figureheads at the club or the players - the upshot was all three elements were fighting for space in an episode which had no room to breathe.
Frankly it had all the interest of an observational documentary on a car insurance company (Bridle, anyone?). There were no hooks, there was no pace, and no deep dive into the human interest angle that so many of the fans - such as the cold water swimming lads - clearly have.
For a 40-minute film the number of contributors is mind bending, leaving you feeling like you’re a half eaten kebab being swarmed over by a pack of ants, and yet some of them crop up never to be seen again. This boils down to the fact that, as stated the producers came in far too late - unless it was a conscious decision to tell the story from that point, which would make it even worse. Most likely however someone at Netflix said “oh go on then, let’s have another season... but you only get three episodes” giving everyone about five minutes to prepare, precipitating an almighty kick-bollock scramble.
There is no doubt if they’d had longer to prepare - and more air time - they would have ended up with a far better product.
It’s such a shame because this was a gift wrapped opportunity to make a superb opening episode, building on all the good elements from the first two series. It’s the TV equivalent of an Aiden McGeady cross, and Fulwell ‘73 were Charlie Wyke’s head.
There are some unavoidable issue too - it suffers, sorry everyone, from there being a lack of Martin Bain, Charlie Methven and to a lesser extent Stewart Donald. There is no box office element here and no obvious candidate to replace him. As such, the feel of the whole documentary lurches from clown school under Madrox to business school under KLD. He might be young, but he’s straight laced, focused and serious. He is very clearly a product of his upbringing.
There are good moments though. Some of the in game reactions by the fans are something that many of us will identify with, including Peter the taxi driver. I actually used to sit directly in front of him when the SOL first opened, and the 12-year old me remembers his quite impressive command of you could say industrial language; so much so in fact you’d imagine he was paying homage to the mines that had once occupied the site.
But I’ll tell you now - don’t stop after episode one.
Persevere. Because it gets much, much better.