Over the years, tevevision has established some iron-clad venues for its most reliable dramas: cop shows, legal shows, medical shows. The 21st century has busted down some of those walls, with our most talked about shows being about fantasy feudal kingdoms, the bygone era of advertising firms, and the meth trade in the American southwest. But one genre that is finally coming into its own feels like an absolute no-brainer: welcome to the era of the cheer show.
Now, it's not like we're currently drowning in TV shows about cheerleaders, but the last month has brought two crucial ones: Netflix's docuseries Cheer, which documents an elite junior-college cheerleading squad through its intense training process and the sometimes-clashing personalities therein, and Dare Me, a narrative drama on USA about a midwestern cheer squad that takes some very dark turns. Do two new shows officially count as a moment? In this era of micro-targeted TV and audience fragmentation, we'd argue it does. We'd also argue that both shows capitalize on something that's been bubbling just beneath the surface in American popular culture for a while now: Cheerleaders make for perfect film and TV drama.
There are a few reasons for this. For starters, cheerleaders are a genuine American archetype. In the abstract, they represent a piece of Americana, that mostly fictional version of this nation at its most idyllic: a happy, middle-class nuclear family not locking their doors before loading into the station wagon to visit the local high school gymnasium (or football field) where the boys are playing sports and the girls are cheerleading on the sidelines. It's almost always a lie, and in 2020 it's a lie that's mostly been debunked in popular culture. But cheerleaders are the vestigial tail of that perfect American ideal. And because of that, they're a perfect symbol for TV shows tha intent to transcend or subvert that ideal. That's why the first season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer saw our heroine on the cheer squad. That's why Heroes made "Save the cheerleader, save the world" into its early shibboleth. Cheerleaders represent one thing in American pop culture, but Buffy and Heroes upended that vision by turning their cheerleaders into superheroes.
This is also why Dare Me gets so much mileage out of going dark with its own cheerleader characters. The darker side of idealized archetypes is something of an archetype itself. And the high-stakes world of cheerleading can produce all sorts of subversions, from Holly Hunter in The Positively True Adventures of the Texas Cheerleader Murdering Mom, to Alan Ball's American Beauty screenplay (even if the latter has aged poorly).
But forget about Americana for a second and focus on perhaps the most important reason cheerleaders make for great TV: they bring all the inherent drama of sports movies, but with more layers than dumb, boring boys. The athleticism on display in shows like Cheer is astounding and humbling. It brings us back to what Kirsten Dunst's Torrance told Eliza Dushku's Missy (and, by extension, any skeptical audience members who wandered in): cheerleaders are badass athletes who risk life and limb, show up on ESPN, and win championships. This stuff is intensity personified, and their triumphs are just as soul-stirring as anything you'd find on the football field in Friday Night Lights or the basketball court in Hoosiers. Add to that the fact that the cheer squads are populated with girls and guys (many of whom are queer!) and all that intensity on the field instantly translates to the practice sessions. I'm not even talking about romantic storylines (though Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Bradford's sweet, toothpaste-based Bring It On romance is a template too few other movies have followed), but there is so much rich drama to be mined from these girls and guys testing their athletic abilities, risking injury, surviving injury, and struggling under that most reliable of sports-film cliches: the overbearing coach.
Ultimately cheerleading remains a rich vein for both fiction and non-fiction shows to tap, so we hope TV platforms keep these shows coming. Athletic excellence plus upending traditional American archetypes? Definitely things to cheer for.
Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.