Everything would’ve been so much tidier if Netflix’s “Cheer” had been a one-season wonder.
An overnight sensation that debuted a few months before the pandemic, no one expected a docuseries about the championship Navarro College cheerleading team to hit like it did. What followed was a propulsive ascent to near cultural ubiquity that few other shows in recent memory have experienced.
Within a matter of weeks, “Saturday Night Live” parodied the injury-prone practices. Team members were twirling alongside Kendall Jenner on daytime television and going live on Instagram with Joe Biden from the campaign trail. A group of teenage athletes went from being cheer-lebrities to full-fledged stars, racking up millions of fans on social media and charging $50 for Cameos between practices.
But then came the fall ― or should we say tumble ― from grace. Pushback surrounding cheerleading-related injuries began to raise questions about the program’s safety. COVID upended the 2020 season, with the NCA National Championships in Daytona Beach becoming yet another pandemic casualty. And then, the show’s breakout star Jerry Harris, whose Oprah Winfrey-endorsed “mat talk” landed him a spot on the Oscars red carpet, was indicted on child pornography charges and accused of sexually abusing underage boys.
If the first season of “Cheer” was about introducing the rest of us to the insular world of high-level competitive cheerleading and its even higher-flying athletes, then the second is a pressing reminder that it’s rife with the same issues plaguing so many other collegiate sports and industries.
“The curve balls that were thrown to this particular production were unprecedented in my experience,” showrunner Greg Whiteley, who also created the “Last Chance U” franchise at the streamer, told HuffPost in a recent interview. “What [coach Monica Aldama] and the team were going through during that second season was intense, regardless of whether our cameras were there.”
Viewers see the team face “a lot of challenges” in Season 2, Aldama said. “As a coach, I try to put my game face on every day, stay positive and encourage the team to focus our goals,” she added. “I see challenges as an opportunity to grow and learn. I hope that’s what viewers take away.”
A series more content to rest on its laurels might’ve done things differently. Why tarnish the “Friday Night Lights”-esque sheen of an inspirational sports fantasy that had won so many fans? But “Cheer” doesn’t shy away from tangling with these knots ― be it jealousies spurred by the real-life mechanics of filming a hit reality series or the kind of power that can easily lead to abuse.
The second season chooses instead to lean into this discomfort and tell a messier, if fractured, story about the perils of fame and myth-making. And it’s all the more interesting for it.
The nine new episodes chronicle Navarro’s quest for a 15th championship title. This time around, however, the series simultaneously tracks their rivals just 40 miles to the east, Trinity Valley Community College. Building empathy for both teams over the course of the season effectively positions viewers to question who exactly they’re rooting for and why. It’s a David and Goliath story that’s impossible to resist and brimming with plenty of classic sports intrigue ― TVCC even poaches Navarro’s former choreographer to up their team’s flamboyance factor. While the influx of fresh faces and backstories might overwhelm at times, these new athletes possess the same verve that made stars out of the Season 1 cast.
For Gabi Butler, a returning Navarro athlete and one of the most recognizable figures in competitive cheerleading, expanding the scope of the show also meant broadening how many people it could reach.
“You’re going to see both sides of the story. It’s not just Navarro,” Butler explained, noting she once considered attending the rival college. “Both programs have always been neck and neck with each other.”
“The first season had a huge impact on the whole entire cheer industry and I just hope this season can touch people in a different way,” Butler added. “Because it is more raw. It is more emotional and it’s more open.”
The retooled structure of the show also gave Whiteley a chance to circumvent the dreaded TV series sophomore slump.
“When you do the first reboot of ‘Spider-Man,’ you get to tell the origin story. You get to explain the world and introduce characters, and oftentimes why sequels are so bad is because you’ve lost the magic of that part of the story,” Whiteley said. “This season we introduce a new world, which is the team down the road.”
Aldama, however, remains the series’ constant, with Whiteley calling her an “incredibly rich character who you could film forever.”
The season stops in its tracks once the allegations surrounding Harris surface ― the same day Aldama is set to make her debut on “Dancing with the Stars.” Given how “Cheer” vaulted Harris onto a new rung of fame (and benefitted from his tremendous popularity), it would be irresponsible not to offer that same care, sensitivity and platform to the alleged victims of his abuse. (Harris, who has pleaded not guilty, is currently jailed awaiting trial.)
This all takes center stage in the gut-wrenching fifth episode, which features a sit-down with the twin brothers who say that Harris sexually abused them and demanded explicit images when they were 13. To give context to the allegations, the episode also features professionals who work with survivors of sexual assault and can speak to problems that can impact collegiate athletes.
When piecing together the season, Whiteley said that there was no other option but to trace the story to its natural conclusion.
“When you get close enough to individuals, human beings are messy people and you’re going to encounter some uncomfortable situations,” he said. “You just try and handle those with as much integrity and honesty as you can.”
“The situation with Jerry was something that none of us could have ever predicted,” Whiteley continued. “Once that news came to light, our job was very simple. We were making a story about this team. He is a member of that team, and we have to tell that part of the story.”
The scandal ricochets through Navarro College and the larger cheerleading community as the group reckons with the conflicting versions of the teammate they thought they knew: the human beam of sunshine who captured the hearts of millions, and the predator accused of victimizing young boys.
Sure, this may not sound like the binge-friendly follow-up to the first season, which left each of its stars on the come-up. But it’s a necessary and norm-shattering story that makes “Cheer” that much more vital and could actually spur real change within the sport.
“Cheerleading should be a safe place for everyone,” said Butler. “We could definitely do a better job of being more communicative. We stuff things down and bottle things up a lot, and I think it’s important for people to express how they’re feeling and be more open about what’s going on outside of practice.”
“Monica still texts me to this day asking, ‘How is life? How are you? Outside of cheerleading?’ You see one side, but what’s the other?”
Despite all the praise and criticism that’s come her way, investing in young people on and off the mat remains paramount for Aldama, who has no plans on giving up.
“The team members are my purpose ― that’s my why,” she said. “Nothing is more satisfying than getting a phone call after they’ve moved on and hearing how their time at Navarro helped shape them. Their resilience is inspiring and they are the reason I’ve dedicated my entire life to the sport of cheer.”
“Cheer” Season 2 is currently streaming on Netflix.
Careful viewers of the first episode can see HuffPost’s Cole Delbyck, who appears in a Build Series interview clip.