The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘Cheer’ made celebs of its stars. Season 2 shows the downside to fame.

Jeron Hazelwood of Trinity Valley Community College performs in Season 2 of “Cheer.” (Netflix)
Placeholder while article actions load

Until it didn’t, the docuseries “Cheer” shared with its subjects the sweaty, eager-to-please sheen of the underdog.

When it debuted on Netflix in January 2020, the eventual word-of-mouth hit landed in an ever-crowded streaming landscape, spotlighting a sport and a subculture dominated by women and gay men. Sure, the school profiled by the show — Navarro College in eastern Texas, some 60 miles south of Dallas — was then a 14-time national champion. But the series seemed as much of an outsider, even a misfit, as the athletes it highlighted, several of whom overcame childhoods defined by neglect and abuse to find community, mentorship and a larger purpose doing jaw-dropping stuntwork. The doc crew wasn’t allowed to film the national cheerleading championship in Daytona, for instance — the competition the season had been leading to — lending the production a scrappy credibility that meshed well with its admiring but intimate approach.

“Cheer” also made social media celebrities of Navarro cheer coach Monica Aldama and several of the athletes — none more so than fan favorite Jerry Harris, who, in a horrifying turn, was charged by the FBI in September 2020 with producing child pornography. (He has since pleaded not guilty to that and several other charges, including the solicitation of sex and lewd photographs from minors, according to the Associated Press.)

Even with the announcement that the show’s follow-up season would tackle Harris’s arrest, it’s jarring to see the cheerleader in so many of the new episodes, at least until the midseason episode titled “Jerry.” His overhanging presence adds just another question mark as to how the show should continue, and how it can continue raising up the sport without being affected by individual athletes’ failings.

Viewers expecting something of the consummate coherence of Season 1 are bound to be disappointed. Season 2 is marked by a perhaps inevitable messiness that reflects the chaos of the past two years in and beyond Navarro: the rise and fall of Harris, the disruptions of the pandemic and the distractions of fame. Returning “characters” are unceremoniously dropped, as is at least one potentially juicy facet of the rivalry between Navarro and its sometime trouncer Trinity Valley, led by coach Vontae Johnson, a former high school football player who found his own calling in cheer.

After Harris’s arrest, it’s hard not to notice the show’s course corrections: the dimmed spotlight on the athletes, a softer portrayal of the still-reeling Aldama, intimations of the larger issues plaguing the billion-dollar cheer-industrial complex. The result is a season missing much of the youthful heart that distinguished its predecessor, but it’s still a well-crafted sports drama and an enthralling showcase of this particular blend of acrobatics and flair.

Season 1 review: Netflix’s ‘Cheer’ is the documentary that hard-working cheerleaders have long deserved

Season 2 fittingly opens with a look back at how the series’ success transformed its subjects into household names. “Cheer” alumni appeared on “Ellen”; Aldama competed on “Dancing With the Stars,” one of her favorite shows; and Cameo and influencer gigs fattened their wallets and extended their 15 minutes. But this prelude is no victory lap; fame may be the single most important — and unpredictable — force in the narrative that unfurls. With Jerry, Gabi, Lexi and La’Darius all returning to Navarro after the release of the docuseries, the fissures between the newly minted celebs and the obscure athletes quickly explode, testing the limits of a preoccupied Aldama’s hitherto seemingly effortless abilities to instill a sense of teamwork and sportsmanship.

While discussions of agents and ad shoots become de rigeur in some corners of the Navarro gym, fueling resentment among the rookies and those overlooked by the cameras, Johnson and his team plot their reprise. “Cheer” had made Navarro, Trinity’s Goliath, even bigger. While Aldama loses sleep over the pressure to stay No. 1, Trinity, just 40 miles away, tries to figure out how they can repeat their 2017 win over Navarro.

Unfortunately, the diffuse storytelling of Season 2 makes it hard to get to know any of the athletes on the level that we got to know Jerry, Lexi or Gabi, though fascinating parallels are drawn late in the season between Johnson and Dee, a powerful athlete whose shorter height locked him out of advancing in the more traditionally masculine sports like football and basketball he had grown up playing.

Relaxed yet intense with a far-more hands-on coaching approach than Aldama, Johnson does indeed seem to be an older version of Dee, whose discomfort with cheerleading manifests in a refusal to smile in his routines. (Both Trinity men are presumed to be straight.) Aldama’s preference for femininity and flamboyance in her athletes has served her well in the sport’s subjective judging, which means the tight rivalry between Trinity and Navarro, which can come down to a few hundredths of a point, may depend on Dee’s willingness to crack a smile and Johnson’s ability to coax out a softer side, or at least some classic showmanship, from the teen.

In other words, Season 2 gives us different but equally resonant reasons to root for Navarro and Trinity. Even before Harris’s arrest, which craters many of his teammates — some because they had considered him a close friend they knew everything about, others because they had been victims of sexual abuse themselves — Navarro had been struggling to come together as a team, especially once covid makes uncertain what their 2020 season will look like. The first half of the new season often feels aimless or repetitive, but it eventually builds suspensefully toward Daytona 2021 — and this time, the show’s gotten big enough that its camera crew were able to film the multiday, multi-episode contest.

There will inevitably be segments of the original “Cheer” fandom that won’t be able to stomach more of the show after the charges made against Harris. That’s a fair reaction to have, especially with his frequent, grinning presence in the first half of the season, and if you just skimmed the headlines, you might be shocked at how much more severe and wide-ranging the allegations are than you may remember. (In the September 2020 indictment, prosecutors said Harris admitted to having sex with a minor and “soliciting and receiving child pornography on Snapchat from at least between 10 to 15 other individuals he knew were minors.”)

But creator Greg Whiteley’s tack is sensitive and responsible, interviewing the twin boys who came forward about their alleged harassment by Harris, the “safe space” they lost in cheer after identifying themselves as victims of sexual abuse and the wider patterns of sexual misconduct — too many swept under the rug — that journalists compare to the Larry Nassar scandal in youth gymnastics.

Season 2’s depiction of cheerleading is a more complicated one than the inspirational vision of Season 1. It’s no longer so immediately rootable, but its reckoning with the larger cheer world is thoughtful and necessary.

Cheer (Season 2, nine episodes) is available for streaming on Netflix.

Read more:

The Golden Globes that nobody watched were still a big old mess

How does Netflix’s ‘Rebelde’ reboot compare with the original?

The first ‘Joe Millionaire’ was a cruel trick. Nearly two decades later, the reboot is just sad.

Loading...