It’s hard to believe it’s been two years since Cheer first debuted on Netflix. In January 2020, the docuseries created and directed by Last Chance U’s Greg Whiteley introduced the world to the Navarro College Cheer Team, a group of elite athletes at a junior college in Corsicana, Texas. Soon it seemed like the Navarro Bulldogs were everywhere, from The Ellen DeGeneres Show to Saturday Night Live, which parodied Coach Monica Aldama’s “win at all costs” mentality in a sketch with Adam Driver.
By late February, cheer-tator Monica and her charismatic, eager-to-please cheerleaders were the internet’s biggest celebrities — and Netflix’s cameras were there to capture every minute of their ascent. As the world watched Navarro win the 2019 National Cheerleading Championship in Daytona Beach, Florida, filming began on Cheer Season 2, the first half of which covers the team’s quest to win their fifteenth NCA (National Cheerleaders Association) title. Sadly, the pandemic cut the team’s season short just 12 days before Nationals, ending many of the athletes’ careers, and depriving others of a chance to jump into the Atlantic, trophy in hand.
The show's second season, and particularly the first episode, presents the team’s newfound superstardom as the greatest obstacle to winning its fifteenth championship. At the beginning of the season, when athletes are typically conditioning and preparing for the two-month journey ahead, Monica, Morgan Simianer, and La’Darius Marshall must instead balance a busy schedule of meet and greets, TV appearances, commercials, and Instagram requests, leaving little time for actual cheering. “It’s obviously a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that not a lot of people get to experience,” says Morgan, who Kendall Jenner famously called her favorite Cheer star. “But I’m mentally and physically exhausted.”
Monica and Assistant Coach Andy Cosferent explain that they have to “ride the wave as long as we possibly can” to secure post-cheerleading opportunities for their athletes — unlike other collegiate sports, there’s no professional organization, and cheer isn’t even recognized by the NCAA as a varsity sport — but they freely admit it’s putting a strain on the team at the worst possible time. It doesn’t help that tension soon bubbles up between athletes who were featured in the show and those who weren’t, as well as those who feel their spots were taken by stars like Lexi Brumback and Gabi Butler, who left the team in 2019, only to to return after the show became a hit. With so much off-mat drama to cover, Cheer Season 2 is lighter on actual cheering than the first season, though it seems likely much was left on the cutting-room floor when the 2020 championship was canceled due to COVID-19.
While Navarro sees fame as an obstacle to be overcome (albeit one that’s bringing awareness and funding to its program), its rival, Trinity Valley Community College, seems to view it as a blessing. Cheer’s first season depicted TVCC as the David to Navarro’s Goliath, but in Season 2, Whiteley gives equal time to both teams, and it’s TVCC that comes out looking mightier. Head Coach Vontae Johnson approaches his team with Monica’s same intensity, but he’s rarely seen willfully ignoring his athletes’ injuries, as the Navarro coach did throughout Season 1. (It’s worth noting that while the brutal nature of the sport was a focal point of the show’s first season — so much that outlets including The Atlantic called out Monica’s treatment of her athletes — it’s largely glossed over in Season 2.) As footage of TVCC’s Hell Week plays on screen, Assistant Coach Khris Franklin explains the team’s ethos: “You try to make sure that the individuals that are on the team are functioning well as people, and friends, and a family. And then also as an athlete, but usually not athlete first.” Monica can wax poetic about being a surrogate mother to her cheerleaders, but her words will continue to ring hollow until she actually puts their safety above their potential to earn her another championship, as Vontae and Khris appear to be doing.
In the premiere’s opening moments, Monica explains that 2020 was filled with “great opportunities and awful times,” a reference to Jerry Harris’ arrest on multiple felony charges, including soliciting sex from minors (he has pleaded not guilty). Jerry was the breakout star of Cheer’s freshman season, and he went on to become Ellen’s Oscars correspondent and earn countless endorsement deals. Apart from a few news clips discussing Jerry’s arrest in the first episode, Cheer avoids the controversy until halfway through Season 2, when two of his alleged victims, twins Sam and Charlie, recount their experience in harrowing detail. The episode, titled “Jerry,” is extremely difficult to watch, especially when viewers are confronted with the reality that the twins’ allegations would't have been taken seriously, nor would they likely have spurred a larger investigation into the U.S. All Star Federation, cheerleading’s governing body, if Harris hadn't become a household name.
For obvious reasons, “Jerry” is a departure from Cheer’s usual tone, and the show struggles to shift back to “nose to the grindstone” mode as it balances the allegations with other grim developments, including La’Darius’ dramatic exit from the team. While there’s still plenty of cheer, the mood is tempered, as Monica and the Navarro cheerleaders grapple with losing their “family members” in such a public way. In a pre-Cheer world, the team might have had a chance to reflect and readjust, but viral fame waits for no cheerleader. The show must go on — there’s a national championship to win, endorsements to secure, and, if Netflix has its way, a third season to film.
All nine episodes of Cheer Season 2 drop Wednesday, January 12 on Netflix.
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Claire Spellberg Lustig is the TV Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.