close reads

Trinity Valley Deserved Better From Cheer

Photo: Netflix

Spoilers for the first and second seasons of Cheer follow.

The second season of Cheer can’t make up its mind about whose story it wants to tell, and that indecision has a funny way of mixing up winners and losers. Take the ninth episode of Cheer season two, “Daytona Pt. 2: If the Judges Disagree.” Trinity Valley Community College (TVCC), the team that refuses to consider itself an underdog but is treated that way by both the surrounding world and Cheer itself, has prevailed over the dominant Navarro College at the 2021 Daytona cheer championships. This is TVCC’s moment, the culmination of years of toiling as they watched their rivals from down the road in Texas seemingly take over the pop-culture world. And yet the series that made Navarro famous, and then infamous, refuses to let them go.

TVCC’s celebratory sprint into the Atlantic Ocean in Cheer’s second season finale is two, maybe three minutes of slo-mo elation, and then the episode pushes them aside to make space for a teary reconciliation between Navarro coach Monica Aldama and former athlete La’Darius Marshall and to again recount all the hardships Aldama has suffered after her team became known around the world. Even when TVCC is on top, Cheer won’t let them stand alone.

There was a period of time after the first season of Cheer aired on Netflix that you could not escape the Navarro College cheerleading team. Longtime coach Aldama and the “faces” of the team who were centered during the first season — Marshall, Gabi Butler, Lexi Brumback, Morgan Simianer, and Jerry Harris — were on morning shows and late-night talk shows. The Dawgs met Oprah and Joe Biden, and they made money on Cameo. They appeared in commercials, and they booked modeling gigs. Aldama’s 14 national championships were highly impressive, and she and her team exploded into a level of fame that assumed their supremacy in the sport was impenetrable. And yet the second season of Cheer, the nine episodes of which dropped on Netflix on January 12, should not have been about them. TVCC, the scrappy team with a gigantic chip on their shoulders, hesitancy to smile for the cameras, and simmering dislike of Navarro were the real stars of season two.

Yes, Navarro is talented, and yes, the program tumbled into real-life drama since docuseries creator and director Greg Whiteley filmed the 2018–2019 school year for the first season of Cheer. For round two, Whiteley filmed from 2019 to 2021, capturing COVID-19 lockdowns, the canceled 2020 NCA & NDA Collegiate Cheer and Dance Championship (“Daytona,” in the series’s parlance), and the devastating snow and ice storms that ripped through Texas in 2021. As Vulture critic Jen Chaney described in her review, the downfall of Harris, who is facing charges on a variety of sex crimes involving minors, has been widely chronicled and is given attention here. So too is the nasty public rift between Marshall and Aldama, with the former attacking the latter about her choice to leave the team to appear on the 29th season of Dancing With the Stars in 2020. All of that stuff is dramatic, and it’s understandable why Whiteley would want to pack it all in (resulting in a nine-episode second season, 50 percent longer than the first season’s six-episode count).

But as it stands, this second Cheer go-round is, as Chaney astutely noted, really “three shows braided together as one,” and that’s not exactly a good thing. Whiteley’s attention is divided between following a post-fame Navarro, examining what happened with Harris, and introducing TVCC, yet those tracks don’t receive equal weight or equal screen time. The episode “Jerry” arrives midway through the season at episode five, operating as a self-contained exploration of the aftermath of the Harris news, with interviews from twins Charlie and Sam about the abuse they allegedly endured from Harris and conversations with Aldama, Butler, and other teammates about their shock and confusion. Meanwhile, surrounding “Jerry” are episodes that belabor, repetitively and with decreasing impact, the price of celebrity for Navarro, and that approach sometimes feels like Cheer patting itself on the back for the impact it’s had.

As Aldama is framed in slow-motion close-ups that capture the wind rippling through her highlighted hair or the “impress me” look upon her face as she watches the athletes on her team push their bodies to the limit, we hear over and over about what difficulty fame has wrought. Aldama complains about “the hate, the negativity” the team has received on social media in the premiere, and Whiteley returns to her frustration and irritation as the season progresses. Her husband Chris reads mean tweets. Her assistant coaches bemoan all the pressure she’s under. Other authorities and officials in the cheer world comment on the sexism Aldama has received. And in a Breaking Bad moment, Aldama unloads on her athletes, some of whom barely know her because of limited team interactions resulting from COVID-19 restrictions: “I don’t understand the world that we live in right now that’s so, like, everybody worrying about everybody else, and they’re so hypocritical, honestly … I really don’t need your opinion, thanks,” she says.

It is an onslaught of defensiveness that has a worthwhile purpose — portraying the transformational nature of fame and how quickly it can collapse into infamy — but that also loses efficacy after a certain point. Heavy is the head that wears the crown, Cheer seems to be saying while asking for our sympathy, and look, we are a culture that deeply loves watching famous people be famous: the Kardashians, the British monarchy. But the Navarro focus seems particularly misguided when TVCC is right there and their David role in the David-versus-Goliath story of TVCC versus Navarro is so much more compelling to watch. “Fuck them!” TVCC cheerleaders regularly yell when describing Navarro, and excuse me, but that is my messy reality TV love language!

When we meet the Athens, Texas, team, Cheer uses a few overhead drone shots to show us how close the schools are: TVCC is only 37 miles east of Navarro in Corsicana, 45 minutes or so by car. Yet the other-side-of-the-tracks vibe is clear. The Cardinals are 11-time national champions in the “advanced large coed junior college division” to Navarro’s 14 but haven’t won in the last couple years. A local newscaster describes TVCC as “the other team.” TVCC’s buildings look a little more run-down, their mats a little more worn; they certainly don’t have the $100,000 that Navarro pulls together to build their own stage on which to practice.

Head coach Vontae Johnson, who used to cheer for TVCC, has only had the position for three years; he’s closer in age to the athletes themselves than he is to assistant coach Khris Franklin, who was the head coach from 2011 to 2017, who hired Johnson to replace him, and who later came back to the program he can’t fully quit. The relationship between Johnson and Franklin is fascinating; it would be easy, but not entirely correct, to label it as good cop versus bad cop. Instead, they both have strong supportive uncle energy, intense and exacting but approachable and honest. (In a very endearing moment, Franklin is wearing a TVCC Cardinals T-shirt with a certainly unsanctioned illustration of Heath Ledger’s Joker on it when his best friend’s family surprises him by coming to Daytona.) And unlike Navarro, which allows its cheerleaders to simultaneously serve on All Star teams, TVCC doesn’t allow dual placement. “We don’t go and get Instagram people,” Johnson says. “Don’t come to the Valley just because you want to be famous. Come because you want to be the best.” (That warning has particular poignancy given that Cheer approached TVCC for season one, according to Johnson, but was turned down because the coach wanted the team to focus on the sport.)

Photo: Netflix

While Navarro’s athletes are appearing in commercials and marketing campaigns, TVCC’s athletes are just cheering and attending school, and there’s a reminder here of the question at the heart of Steven Soderbergh’s High Flying Bird: What is the responsibility of an institution to its athletes? Is Aldama doing what’s right by getting her athletes representation because Navarro’s fame is tied to a presumption of victory, or is Johnson doing what’s right by disallowing outside distractions, keeping TVCC’s focus on school and cheer, and riling up their antagonism toward Navarro? It is difficult to ask for authenticity in reality TV, but TVCC, refreshingly, doesn’t shy away from being the underdogs and the heels, dark horse, and antagonist. Johnson admits that he has made the rivalry with Navarro personal, and Aldama and her husband both say of TVCC, “I wish they were more respectful.”

And yet it’s easy to understand why TVCC has such a chip on their collective shoulder. Their athletes are raw and angry and determined, and what they can do on the mat and in the air is dazzling. Tumbler-slash-flyer Jada Wooten, who wears her heart on her sleeve, doesn’t take crap from anyone (including Johnson) and is phenomenally precise. Tumbler Angel Rice, who is described as both the Madonna and the Simone Biles of cheerleading, throws up mind-boggling spins and flips and serves as a fascinating counterpart to Navarro’s Butler, who in the first season of Cheer painted as the sport’s solitary elite. The nicknamed “Weenies” — tumblers Jaden “Jaymo” Rice, Angel’s brother; Ben “Benji” Chester; and DeVonte “Dee” Joseph — remind Johnson of himself, see themselves as gymnasts rather than cheerleaders, and struggle to reconcile their own definitions of masculinity with the performance demands of the sport. That last point makes for a fascinating subplot that provides direct evidence of how Johnson connects with and mentors his athletes not just in cheer but in how they see the world and place themselves within it.

These are kids who have taken their losses to Navarro personally and who take all the attention Navarro gets personally. They are that viral Michael Jordan moment from The Last Dance brought to life, and navigating how and why they got to be this hungry and this determined would have been a more illuminating way for Cheer to spend its time than, say, chronicling Navarro’s TikTok videos or collaboration with some YouTube influencer. Consider the glaring disparity between Navarro flying to nationals and staying in a beachfront Hilton while TVCC takes a 16-hour bus ride and checks into a roadside Hampton Inn that may or may not have a pool. (It’s giving the street-hockey team from D2: The Mighty Ducks.) This isn’t so much an “eat the rich” analysis as a distinction between the teams’ two approaches: Navarro, which seems to treat the team like a machine and the sport as a business, and TVCC, which treats the team as the young adults they are and the sport as a means of becoming more well-rounded people.

“You try to make sure that the individuals that are on the team are functioning well as people and friends and family — and then also as an athlete, but usually not athlete first,” Franklin says, and that ideology has a clear trickle-down effect. From Franklin to Johnson, whose relationship is one of shifting power dynamics but sustained respect, and from both of them to the current TVCC athletes, who are literally friends and family on and off the mat. That’s not to say that the athletes on the Navarro team don’t genuinely care for each other. But there is a rigidity and standoffishness to the way that Aldama treats her athletes this season that suggests a relationship based more on labor than personal growth, and that inequity only adds to the sense that maybe Navarro’s time in the limelight is no longer doing it any good.

Cheer takes time to show Franklin, who also works as a cheer competition judge, explaining to TVCC athletes minute scoring breakdowns and slightly adjusting their stunts, providing background information about the actual sport that helps educate both team members and us as viewers. While Navarro brings back athletes who have already left the program to boost their chances of championship success (a move that crowds out rookies and other veterans from a chance on mat), TVCC ensures that three-year athletes have a spot in their routine before they graduate. When TVCC and Navarro both make it to Daytona for the 2021 championship, TVCC’s 20-person on-mat team is made up of only two people who have ever been there before and 18 who haven’t. What kind of anxiety did those various athletes experience? How did they weather the jump onto such a big stage? Cheer spends two episodes in Daytona, and although TVCC comes out on top, Navarro gets more attention in the form of a reconciliation between Monica and Marshall and imagery of the Navarro cheerleaders each wandering off and weeping in loss. Even in victory, TVCC feels secondary. (Couldn’t Cheer have even attempted to find out what TVCC’s secret acronym “CCFC” means? Devote some investigational resources to that!)

Of course, the thrill of making any kind of nonfiction art is that anything can happen. There’s inherent unexpectedness and spontaneity to the medium, and there’s no way Whiteley could have known that TVCC would end up victorious. But the shaping of these nine episodes feels like acquiescence to the assumption that Navarro should always be the center of attention — that Goliath must remain unchecked and unchallenged — simply because they’ve been the center of attention before. TVCC proved the flaw in assuming success, and their story, in all their puckishness, prickliness, and relatability, deserved more in Cheer season two.


See All
Trinity Valley Deserved Better From Cheer