We open on a shot of a battered jeep speeding along a potholed road, ramshackle shanties teetering in the background. Abidjan, Ivory Coast, a caption reads. Inside the jeep a mean looking African man cradles an assault rifle, while another man in a flash suit relays details of a business deal to some guy called ‘Albert’ over the phone.
Cut to ‘Albert’. Montreal, Canada. A bald, continental man paces the centre circle of an empty football stadium with all the floodlights on. We are not told why he chooses to conduct business here and not in his office, but he does. Seems like a waste of electricity really. Pound shop Pep is worried about the snakes from Malmo undercutting him. His associate tells him that they were delayed because the army blocked the road this morning. This too seems strange given that there hasn’t been a war in the Ivory Coast since 2011.
Now our flashy friend, in a lovely lilac shirt, arrives in a village where a football match is being played on a dirt pitch. The army appear to have stopped blocking the road too. They’re watching on in full uniform, despite having not seen active service for seven years. But this is why lilac-shirt is here, he’s scouting a player for Plastic Pep.
And this lad looks the real deal. He’s absolutely rapid. Although you can’t help feeling that he looks absolutely rapid because the extras he’s running with have been told to jog to make him look faster. Nonetheless, ‘Albert’ is blown away by the footage he’s sent of this boy running half the length of a dirt pitch in an African village, and tells his well dressed partner to pull the trigger on a deal immediately, complete with $15k signing on bonus. For a youth player. In the MLS. He even agrees to let the lad’s kid brother tag along for the ride.
Welcome to the batshit ludicrous world of ’21 Thunder’, Netflix’s series on the trials and tribulations of a fictional MLS franchise’s under 21s team. If you like your TV well thought out, realistic, and entertaining then look away now. But if you’re a fan of car crash television with hilariously bad footballing sequences and a surprising amount of narcotics felonies then buckle up, cause there’s eight whole episodes of this madness.
Next we meet Nolan Gallard, poster boy of the side. He’s making the greasiest bacon you’ve ever seen for his breakfast. Not sure what the team nutritionist would have to say about that, but if they operate on the same level that the rest of the backroom staff seem to they’d probably encourage it.
Quick aside, ’21 Thunder’ loves exposition. If there’s something to be spelled out, you can guarantee there’s a news report there to spell it out. And so we learn, while Nolan tucks into his plate of cholesterol, that Thunder have signed Manchester legend Davey Gunn. Whether Manchester refers to United or City is not specified. The show is like PES in real life. Not to spoil any future episodes for anyone, but the series finale features a friendly against London.
Also joining the Thunder staff is five time player of the year (not sure in what competition) and Olympic medalist (probably bronze because it’s also not specified), Christy Cook. Plastic Pep isn’t happy because she’s never coached and doesn’t have a penis, but the club’s feisty owner Ana insists she joins because it’ll be a ‘PR squirt fest’. Her words, not mine. Cook brings pearls of wisdom like ‘put your shoulder on an opposition player when you jump for leverage’. However did they manage without her?
Making up the rest of the Thunder roster we have the likes of Stefan Arnaud, or ‘Big Snacks’ to his friends, a womanising bully who looks about as much like a 21 year old as Dick van Dyke does.
There’s also Alex el Haddadi, whose trying to get into Cornell, captains the side, and happens to be literally the worst goalkeeper you’ve ever seen, and a guy I think might be called something Tran. It’s difficult to tell because nobody ever refers to him by his name and every time he speaks somebody talks over him. Tran has just been promoted from the under 18s and is given a bit of a rough time by Big Snacks at first, but I’ve got a feeling he might come good. Either way, he’s the best character and I’m firmly rooting for him in everything he does.
Highlights from the first episode include Nolan giving the ball away once in training and being made to run 20 laps, the new Ivorian signing’s little brother attacking a member of airport security for not letting him take some mysterious seeds through customs, and the weird mute guy who lives in the team condo and watches documentaries about giraffes.
Nothing can surpass Manchester legend Davey Gunn’s first training session though. One by one he asks the lads to try and beat him on the dribble. When Nolan nutmegs him, he gets up and elbows him square in the face. It has to be seen, words can’t do it justice.
Later that night, by way of an apology, certified lunatic Gunn invites Nolan to partake in an ‘hour of power’, in which they down a drink a minute for 60 minutes. It’s medically impossible, but ’21 Thunder’ doesn’t care for things like science or logic. All this happens the night before the first game of the season too.
Events take a turn when Nolan runs into childhood friend and stereotypical wrong’un Special K.
Special K. I shit you not.
I won’t spoil anything for anyone by giving too much away, but let’s just say that curfews are curfews for a reason and Nolan is bloody good at hopping fences.
Thunder then play their first game of the season against LA. Might be Galaxy, probably isn’t. Nolan has a shocker, the Ivorian, who we finally learn is called Junior, scores the best goal you’ve ever seen by a man in a pair of running shoes (no jokes, he’s wearing trainers), Davey Gunn is necking a glass of red on the touchline, and, as predicted, Tran is sensational.
Special K then sets fire to a car.
The show might be all about a team called Thunder, but it’s creators have captured absolute lightning, even if it is for all the wrong reasons.