tv review

Cheer Season Two Puts the ‘Real’ in Sports Reality

Much of the uplift in Cheer’s new episodes comes from the team at Trinity Valley Community College, Navarro’s rivals and the de facto underdogs of season two. Photo: Courtesy of Netflix/Netflix

The second season of Cheer is three shows braided together as one.

It’s a follow-up to the first season of the breakout Netflix docuseries in which we once again watch the Navarro Community College cheerleaders confront numerous obstacles while attempting to win another national title. It’s also a reboot of the first season that follows a new cheer squad, Navarro’s rival, Trinity Valley Community College, as their members deal with their own issues while trying to win a national title for the first time in several years. And thirdly, it is an examination of the effect season one’s popularity continues to have on the Navarro squad, as well as the unfortunate downfall of Cheer’s original breakout star, Jerry Harris.

These three interrelated approaches result in nine episodes of sports-reality drama that are largely compelling but less focused than Cheer’s first season. Series creator Greg Whiteley, who directs all of season two, begins by tracing the days leading up to the 2020 national competition in Daytona for both Navarro, located in Corsicana, Texas, and Trinity Valley, based less than 50 miles away in Athens, Texas. It’s no spoiler to say that Daytona doesn’t happen in 2020 because of COVID, which means Whiteley has to resume filming when the countdown to Daytona 2021 heats up. Given the unavoidable lack of closure in 2020, Whiteley does a decent job of creating some continuity in the story — really, stories — he is telling. But Cheer season two can’t avoid feeling a bit fractured and choppy. That’s partly because real life couldn’t either.

It seems like a whole lifetime ago, but during the first couple of months of 2020, the first season of Cheer and many of its stars were having a real pop-culture moment, showing up on the Today show, on Ellen, and in pretty much any media outlet that expressed interest, which was basically all of them (this one included). One of the more fascinating things that the second season does is interrogate the impact of all that buzz, especially the disorienting stress that comes with suddenly being an in-demand public figure and the weirdness of it all for the cheerleaders who weren’t as front and center in the Netflix series.

“Oh my God, don’t get me talking shade,” says Ryan Bartley, a stunter on the squad, who clearly might talk shade if cameras weren’t rolling. Diplomatically, he adds that the “non-star” cheerleaders are “just happy to be here,” while squadmate Maddy Brun laughs in a way that suggests that some of the attention others command can be a bit much. Ironically, Maddy winds up emerging as one of the stars of season two, in part because of her honesty and her backstory — she was raised by a single mom after her dad went to prison — and because she’s a charismatic, determined dynamo on the mat. She also is laser-focused on succeeding at cheer; when her parents suggest that she consider having her own clothing line like some of the other cheer influencers, she bats that idea down: “I’m not here to promote myself and make myself bigger. I’m here to cheer and go to school.”

The makers of Cheer seemingly do not have to manufacture any drama. The drama comes right to their front doorstep. La’Darius Marshall, a talented member of the Navarro squad who has zero qualms about getting caught talking shade, continues to bring his strong opinions into team meetings and practices as he takes on more of a leadership role. (“Whoever came up with these uniforms needs to go back to the drawing board and do it again,” he says after Navarro’s glittery new ensembles are unboxed.) When Monica Aldama, the simultaneously caring and intimidating coach of Navarro, takes leave from the team to compete on Dancing With the Stars, it sends La’Darius into a tailspin. He clashes with the new assistant coach, feels unsupported by Monica, leaves the squad, and starts making statements about Aldama on social media that completely fracture their once-close relationship. Whether or not they can or will mend it is one of the threads that runs through the season.

Certainly the greatest pall cast over Navarro involves Jerry Harris, the high-spirited mat talker who became a beloved figure after the first season of Cheer, then was subsequently arrested on federal child-pornography charges and sued by twin brothers who say he sent them unsolicited nude photos and attempted to force one of them to perform oral sex on him at a cheer competition. To Cheer’s credit, season two devotes an entire thoughtful episode to the allegations against Jerry, including interviews with the twin brothers, the USA Today reporters who broke the story, and members of the Navarro family who are conflicted about how to reconcile the Jerry they know with the one who, by his own admission, tried to engage minors in sexual activities. (Neither Harris nor his legal team agreed to appear in the episode.)

In one of the most heartbreaking  moments of the season, Monica acknowledges that Jerry wrote her a letter from prison, where he is awaiting trial and faces the possibility of a minimum of 15 years in federal prison, expressing optimism for a future in which he could become a motivational speaker. She hasn’t written him back. “I don’t know what I would say,” she explains.

Obviously this is a darker, heavier Cheer than season one. It would be irresponsible if it weren’t. But there are moments of uplift, too, and a lot of them come from the crew at Trinity Valley, coached by Vontae Johnson and his assistant, Khris Franklin, with as much heart and grit as Aldama gives to her squad. Given Navarro’s recent success and Netflix sheen, TVCC emerges as an underdog determined to unseat the community-college cheer equivalent of the New England Patriots.

As Daytona 2021 approaches, the contrast between the two becomes even more stark. Navarro gets to practice on a newly purchased outdoor stage with a bounce similar to the one on the Daytona stage, while the TVCC cheerleaders roll out some tired-looking mats over asphalt to get a feel for doing their routine outside. Navarro flies to Florida; Trinity Valley takes a bus. When the time finally comes for both teams to perform and await the results, Cheer once again proves it can generate as much palpable tension as a Hitchcockian thriller.

There are times when the docuseries gets a little baggy, with interview subjects repeating the same information — about the stress caused by COVID or how nervous they are about Daytona — more times than necessary. Cheer season two unfolds over nine episodes when it could have been seven or even six. But what it does well — dizzying camerawork that captures just how high the cheerleaders fly and flip, a sense of respect and compassion for its student athletes, an instinct for leaning into the emotion of a moment without sentimentalizing it — it continues to do well. Even more than season one, this chapter of Cheer confirms that cheerleading is not only a sport that requires a high level of physical strength and skill, but an endeavor that, for its athletes, is serious life or death.

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Cheer Season Two Puts the ‘Real’ in Sports Reality