When we last left Navarro two years ago, the future was looking bright for our sparkly, strapping young cheerleading heroes: not only did they take home the win in Daytona, but many of them were catapulted into fame overnight. Cheer Season 1 was one of the last major cultural phenomena of our pre-pandemic lives due to the strong audience connection with the true story of underdogs with the passion to achieve their dreams and the team’s function as a “chosen family” for the kids, many of whom come from rough backgrounds. Greg Whiteley’s Netflix docuseries was nominated for six Emmys, taking home three for outstanding cinematography, editing, and overall achievement in an unstructured reality program. In January 2020, one would have been hard pressed to turn on the TV or scroll through social media without seeing the smiling, upbeat faces of coach Monica Aldama and her squad of celebrity cheerleaders, including Gabi Butler, Morgan Simianer, Lexi Brumback, La’Darius Marshall and Jerry Harris, the latter of whom is now notably infamous for his incarceration as he awaits trial for allegations of sexual misconduct against minors. Knowing what we know now, recapturing the unique, invigorating energy of the first season was always going to be a futile effort, despite the showrunners’ good faith attempts.
Season 2, which premiered in January, opens with a surface level exploration of the Cheer crew’s rapid ascent to their 15 minutes of fame. While their appearances on Ellen, Good Morning America, and pretty much every other talk show on the planet brought them money, fame and followers, the intense pressure these young adults faced, and continue to face, under the public eye is worth investigating—but is unfortunately left mostly untouched by the showrunners.
The first episodes of Season 2 also introduce us to the new kids on the Navarro block (Maddy Brum, Brooke Morosca, Gillian Rupert, Cassadee Dunlap) as well as Navarro’s rivals down the road, the Trinity Valley Community College cheer team (namely coaches Vontae Johnson and Khris Franklin), but thematically these episodes don’t go beyond what was already seen in Season 1. Rookies and vets alike experience the epic highs and lows of making mat or not, everyone has a traumatic backstory that ends with cheerleading as their ultimate salvation, and of course everyone desperately wants to win big at Daytona. Even with the addition of these new characters, the first four episodes offer too few revelations to justify the run time; the ideas are frankly too repetitive.
But a dark shift occurs for our heroes with Episode 5, titled “Jerry,” when the bad news just won’t stop crashing down around them and everything happens all at once. First, in March 2020, the coronavirus pandemic hits (maybe you’ve heard of it?), canceling Daytona 2020 only a few weeks before competition and taking away everything the team had been working so hard for. COVID-19 also makes team bonding a lot more difficult, as the kids are more isolated in their separate dorms (although in a cute moment, many of them are shown adopting quarantine pets to cope with the stress and disappointment).
Next, Monica leaves the team with zero warning in order to compete on Dancing with the Stars (she placed 10th), leaving the team with much less experienced assistant coach, Kailee Peppers; it’s not Kailee’s fault, but every Cheer fan worth their salt knows Navarro’s main appeal comes from the chance to learn and grow under Mama Aldama’s mentorship, so the kids’ deep disappointment at Monica’s absence is certainly understandable. Aldama’s jarring exit also causes an ugly public rift between her and longtime Navarro vet La’Darius Marshall; with their relationship functioning as more of a mother/son dynamic in both of their lives, it makes their split all that much more painful to witness.
And finally, right as Monica is about to make her Dancing with the Stars debut in September 2020, Navarro cheer is unceremoniously shaken by scandal: it’s abruptly announced that America’s Sweetheart Jerry Harris is under FBI investigation for soliciting sexually explicit photos and sex from minors. Of course, the showrunners’ handling of this was the most anticipated moment of Season 2; how would the surprise follow-up to such a genuinely “cheerful,” inspiring season of television address such a repugnant, pervasive issue?
When Cheer first premiered two years ago, Jerry Harris was undeniably the breakout star, mainly because of his infectiously positive “mat talk” and unwaveringly optimistic spirit. So it was shocking news, to say the least, when twin 14 year old boys came forward, accusing Harris of sexual abuse. Surely such a force for enthusiastic kindness on television couldn’t be capable of such a disgusting crime? To borrow words from Sarah Klein, the lawyer representing the twins (herself a victim of Larry Nassar), “until you’re behind closed doors with a person, you don’t know them.” This is a strong reality check in our current age of stan culture, a time when many “terminally online” young people latch onto parasocial relationships with celebrities in order to escape the doldrums of real life. Regrettably, this idea is also left unexplored.
“Jerry” does feature interviews with all sides involved in the situation: Jerry’s victims, their mother, their lawyer, the USA Today reporters who broke the case, as well as with Jerry’s former friends and teammates. Jerry’s lawyers were contacted but didn’t give interviews. Thankfully there’s no victim blaming to be found here, only space for everyone to express their take on the story. Naturally, there is tension between the victims’ support system and Jerry’s chosen family members—namely, the twins’ lawyer is under the impression that Monica didn’t do enough to publicly support the victims, while Jerry’s close friends grapple with the fact that someone that they were truly close to could hide such monstrous behaviors from them. Are his friends to blame for missing the signs? Was there anything they could have done to stop it? Probably not, but who wouldn’t ask similar questions if put in their place? After all, the Jerry Harris case is bigger than just himself and bigger than Cheer; it’s no longer a secret that sexual abuse of minors runs rampant in the cheer and gymnastics worlds, and Jerry just one of many examples of what goes on behind closed doors.
After “Jerry,” the issue is only ever mentioned again in one darkly revealing moment: two very young, squealing fangirls visit Navarro, and are delighted to meet their idols. “Where’s Jerry?” one of the girls asks the other, totally unaware of the bigger implications of this deceptively innocent question. “Oh, I don’t think he goes here anymore,” the other girl answers. They drop it, immediately returning to excitedly chatting about how awesome their heroes are.
As the series returns back to that laser-focus on winning another national championship at Daytona from the perspectives of both Navarro and TVCC, I find myself exhausted and sad; although the showrunners did a solid job of unflinchingly tackling the facts of the Jerry case, they don’t leave enough room for the emotional aftermath. The once awe-inspiring, energizingly optimistic tone of Cheer that worked so well in Season 1 now feels taxing, and it simply does not mesh with that of a harrowing document of sexual abuse. When talking about cases like this one, rarely is the question “but did the abuser’s former team win their championship?” on everyone’s minds, and for good reason. Although anticipating the cheerleaders’ successes and failures once felt exhilarating, it now feels draining when juxtaposed next to the horrors of sexual abuse.
Unfortunately, the showrunners spent so much of the runtime chasing the lightning in the bottle of Cheer’s first season that they failed to expand upon the nuggets of hard truth unearthed by its characters; specifically, Monica Aldama’s realization that maybe saying yes to every single media opportunity was causing too much pressure, as well as Sarah Klein’s insight into the darker side of uplifting celebrities that the public doesn’t know personally. The showrunners had an interesting, novel chance to explore what it means to create a lasting document of their real-life subjects in a time when everything in our culture changes on a dime; instead, their choice to fall back on the same formula in the hopes that it would yield the same results ultimately falls flat. While Season 2 brings up some engaging points, and there will always be a place in my heart for my Cheer favorites, re-experiencing the past after such damaging events was really never in the cards. If there’s any hope for a Cheer Season 3, it will have to hinge on reinvention.
Brooklyn-based film writer Katarina Docalovich was raised in an independent video store and never really left. Her passions include sipping lime seltzer, trying on perfume and spending hours theorizing about Survivor. You can find her scattered thoughts as well as her writing on Twitter.
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