The Amazing Grace of Netflix’s Losers

Aarik Danielsen

Pop culture rarely projects the true art of losing.

Walk around any bookstore and you find history is written by the winners—as well as most self-help books and leadership how-tos. Multiplexes are filled with stories of people encountering overwhelming odds, only to overcome them and embed unrealistic ideas about success and struggle.

That’s why a show like Netflix’s Losers is so refreshing and subversive. Comprised of eight episodes, Losers trains its eye on athletes whose claims to fame rank among the worst moments of their lives. Steeped in failure and frustration, these stories don’t boast the miraculous finishes or clutch comebacks we typically revere and record. Instead, they flip the script, showing us what a good loser really looks like.

Early in the first episode, Ron Shelton sums up the show’s through line. The writer and director of several of the late-20th century’s greatest sports films—Bull Durham, White Men Can’t Jump, and Tin Cup—wisely disrupts our economy of winning and losing.

"I think we get it wrong a lot, especially in this country,” Shelton says. “It's all about winning. ...People who are considered winners are, in my mind, some of the great losers of all time. And people who are called losers are, to me, some of the great winners of all time."

Shelton sounds an echo of 1 Corinthians 1:18-31. There, Paul illustrates a stunning truth: God builds his church out of losers, declaring them great in his love and knocking “winners” off the worldly laurels they trust to justify themselves. “Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called,” Paul writes. “Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.”

God builds his church out of losers, declaring them great in his love.

Losers says “Amen” in its own way, shaming our perception of winning through the testimony of those the world places in the “L” column. We access a different sort of wisdom, stepping into the running shoes of Mauro Prosperi as he navigates the grueling Marathon Des Sable in Morocco. Thrown off course by a sandstorm, he forages sustenance from stomach-turning sources and becomes despondent to the point of suicide before being rescued. His experience illustrates the peril and loneliness found in the valley of the shadow of death.

Canadian curler Pat Ryan, who assumed, then prematurely celebrated, a national championship in 1985 only to lose in dramatic fashion, gives new shape and spin to the truth that great pride precedes a great fall. Making a harrowing trek with Iditarod racer Aliy Zirkle, whose already-legendary resolve is tested when she nearly loses her life to a renegade snowmobile driver, we trace the biblical path from suffering through perseverance, and on to character and hope.

Brilliantly, Losers doesn’t only put us in the place of these athletes, calling us to consider our response to trials or shore up the places we lack perspective. Through the eyes of their experience, we see our participation in the very sins and structures that stressed these competitors.

Figure skater Surya Bonaly endures unfairness from judges who couldn’t see past her skin color or culture—and their own “ice princess” preferences. Her story prompts earnest reflection from white viewers about implicit biases and favoritism, and encourages us all to divest ourselves of our mental pictures of a person who does things “the right way.”

The first, and perhaps strongest, episode of Losers focuses on Michael Bentt. Beaten into submission and a subsequent boxing career by a bullying father, his story exhibits how one generation’s sins can be visited upon the next. Driven to the brink of suicide, Bentt’s true triumph comes in leaving the sport to indulge his creative side. Although an extreme example, Bentt’s story presents a moment of truth for every parent. The Bible calls us not to exasperate our children. The temptation to extinguish our children’s true passions, and trouble their souls, by laying the weight of our expectations upon them is something we must stare down—and Bentt helps us do so.

Losers tells these tales through an inventive combination of interviews, archival footage, and animation. The latter element, which could easily be wielded in trite ways, represents unbelievable moments—the attack on Zirkle, an implausibly bad shot that sinks the fortunes of French golfer Jean van de Velde—in ways viewers can understand and absorb. But style never supersedes substance. The beating heart of Losers is the witness of its subjects. Their words keep us from keeping score, reminding us that grace is the great equalizer. Ultimately, Losers retrains our eyes to recognize the dignity God bestows on all people.

The patron saint of big-hearted rock kids everywhere, Tom Petty made a rare misstep when he sang that “even the losers get lucky sometimes.” Contrary to much of pop culture, both Losers and the consolation of the gospel teach us there is no such thing as a loser. Only those who’ve tasted life-giving grace, and those who haven’t.

Topics: TV