A far less interesting version of “Cheer” Season 2 would have ignored how much of a phenomenon the show immediately became upon its January 2020 debut. Weeks before the pandemic brought most of the world to an unsettling halt, Netflix’s docuseries was an unavoidable smash hit, making overnight celebrities of its Texan cheerleader subjects whether they wanted the spotlight or not. They went on “Ellen,” “Dancing with the Stars,” and the Oscars red carpet. They became Instagram influencers and TikTok stars. They became characters both relatable and aspirational for millions of viewers across the world who suddenly felt incredibly invested in the results of a cheerleading competition. In its second season, “Cheer” could’ve just followed that story all over again, yielding decent results. It could’ve gone the “Tiger King 2” route, only briefly acknowledging the series’ impact before reverting back to old storytelling habits. Instead, both by choice and by wild circumstance, the season that director Greg Whiteley and team created is a fascinating study of what it actually feels like to be part of a Netflix phenomenon that burns fast and too bright.
Even before the pandemic hits and the team’s most beloved member, Jerry Harris, gets indicted on federal charges (more on that later), the second season of “Cheer” opens with the Navarro cheerleaders reeling from the shock of becoming famous in an instant. They scroll through their verified Instagram followers in disbelief, hug Kendall Jenner on TV, and take seemingly every single promotional campaign they’re offered. (A particularly painful early montage shows the squad listlessly cheerleading their way through an ad for a local bakery and a YouTube stunt on a nearby farm whose owner couldn’t care less about Netflix, let alone YouTube.) Coach Monica Aldama — a steely woman whose careful, deadpan affect is more curious than charismatic — quickly finds herself inundated by constant interviews and motivational speaking engagements. It all looks very exciting, but in talking head interviews, few of them seem excited about any of it. The team is still a solid unit in practices, but the unspoken tension of what the docuseries revealed, who got the most attention, and how much time their new extracurricular of being famous sucks up is all too palpable.
There’s certainly some good that came out of being on a wildly popular Netflix show (there’s no way Navarro Junior College would be getting $25,000 checks from Ellen DeGeneres without it, for example). But for the most part, “Cheer” makes the whole experience look pretty miserable. Watching Aldama and her young team struggle to meet the expectations of their suddenly ravenous public reminded me of watching “The D’Amelio Show,” the accidentally bleak Hulu series that follows two teenage sisters trying to leverage their TikTok fame into sustainable careers. The rush of fame inevitably turns once a rewarding passion — whether dancing, singing, or cheerleading — into something a bit more calculated, a bit more joyless than before. Despite what they say, more of these docuseries subjects seem to flinch under the spotlight rather than embrace it.
The biggest exception to this rule was also the biggest question mark going into this second season. Jerry Harris, the determined reserve cheerleader whose encouraging (and screaming) “mat talks” became his calling card after the show first dropped, was unquestionably the biggest breakout star of “Cheer.” His literally in-your-face enthusiasm and constant smile made him a favorite for both his fellow cheerleaders and new fans. When he hosted Oscars red carpet coverage for “The Ellen Show,” more celebrities gushed at him than the other way around. Oprah (Oprah!) requested one of his mat talks to pump her up. “Cheer” doesn’t shy away from any of this — which is especially meaningful given the season opens by acknowledging just how far he’s fallen since. Indicted on charges of soliciting sexual images from minors, the once ebullient and omnipresent Harris has been incarcerated since December 2020 pending trial, after he was arrested that September. Making this reality plain right off the bat provides crucial framework for the season to come, which began filming well before the allegations broke, and continues throughout the squad’s subsequent collapse. A lesser version of this show might have omitted Jerry as much as possible, explained his fate in a quick sidebar, and moved on. But one of the reasons why “Cheer” became so popular in the first place was its palpable empathy for its subjects’ pain, and that goes double in this horrific instance. Aldama and Harris’ friends struggle to get through interviews about it in one piece, or without the fresh shock of it all creeping across their stunned faces.
Most impressive, though, is Whiteley’s decision to not just devote the entire fifth episode to the allegations, but turn most of that episode over to the boys who first spoke out about Harris’ alleged crimes, their mother and attorney. With the heartbreaking patience of people who have had to tell a painful story too many times, the boys recount their experiences and explain exactly how Harris’ celebrity in the cheerleading world — and, thanks to this very Netflix series, well beyond — made it so hard to come forward. The moment they did decide to say something, however, is an extremely telling one. Torn between wanting to make their way in cheerleading without fear and hold Harris accountable, the boys didn’t want to press charges until they saw Harris having a chummy FaceTime with President Joe Biden. Harris making his way up to that echelon of celebrity suddenly felt more than frustrating; it felt downright dangerous. That meeting wouldn’t have been possible for Harris without a platform of Netflix catapulting him there, and there’s something undeniably gutting and powerful about the show itself making its own role in Harris’ stardom so plain.
From that point on, the second season of “Cheer” gets markedly less self-reflexive as Navarro and their equally telegenic rivals at Trinity Valley make their way to the Daytona Beach stage for their long-awaited showdown. Harris goes mostly unmentioned, except by a pair of tiny Navarro superfans who strain to see all their favorite cheerleading stars at an event before remembering that Harris will no longer be there. But the pall of his betrayal hangs over everything like an inescapable fog that only thickens the more everyone tries to ignore it. Aldama, exhausted from her “Dancing With the Stars” stint and a COVID diagnosis, falls into something like a depression. Harris’ friend La’Darius Marshall, who revealed his childhood abuse in Season 1, smarts from the sting of Aldama leaving them for Los Angeles and not being around once the allegations arise. The new team, hastily rebuilt after Harris and the pandemic shattered it, never fully gels, despite their best and most determined efforts. Yes, Navarro has more support and money than ever — and certainly more than Trinity, whose squad unrolls its raggedy practice mats in a dirt parking lot while Navarro bounces across their brand new stage, a replica of where they’d compete in Daytona.
But in Season 2, the ripple effects of the star-making quickly become an overwhelming and inescapable wave. The college kids who shared their stories of often painful childhoods became icons to others like them — an honor, but also an enormous responsibility they never expected to shoulder. Aldama, the only constant face of the squad, staggered under the weight of tripled expectations. An alleged predator became cheerleading’s sunniest avatar, making it so much more difficult for anyone to speak out against him than it already was.
There’s so much to love about “Cheer”: the stories, the people, the impressive filmmaking that make both come to such vivid life. But its popularity, exponentially multiplied by Netflix’s incredible reach across the globe, also revealed the cost of fame for those who aren’t ready for it. “Cheer” could have kept churning out the same kind of stories that made it so beloved in the first place, but acknowledging its own role in setting its subjects on the edge of fame’s double-edged sword is far more ambitious, revealing, and worthwhile.