Opinion | Breakout Netflix hit ‘Cheer’ is darker and knottier in its second season
If the first season of “Cheer” was about the world of elite college cheerleading, then the second season of “Cheer” is a show about, well, being a show about the world of elite college cheerleading.
A backflip into the “fourth wall.”
Rewind to early January 2020, when the original six-part docuseries came out of nowhere to become the first breakout hit of that year, juicing up the zeitgeist, turning into a meme factory and even getting the “Saturday Night Live” treatment. Someone like even me — who previously couldn’t imagine watching a whole series about cheerleading — immediately fell for it. Not only was it a doc I did not know I needed about a world I only kinda knew existed, it was thrilling, multi-layered, hyper-emotional — almost like a cinema verité fusion of a Robert Altman movie peering into the American heartland and a “Friday Night Lights” redux (minus the football).
Overnight, too, terms like “stunter” and “tumbler” had fallen into the mainstream vernacular. And if all of that seems so long ago, it was: coming as it did just before the world shut down, before the first sting of the pandemic, it might as well have been in 1998, the series.
Ok, and now: a surprise followup season, courtesy of creator Greg Whiteley. As much it leans on some of its original tropes — the pressure and the pathos, Texas kitsch, teamwork and tears of joy — this go-’round is darker, much knottier. Not only does the coronavirus upend the lives of this co-ed squad, but so does fame — the latter in full thrust, particularly, during the first four episodes, which were shot in the months immediately following the release of the first season, dropping us immediately back in the world of the Navarro College Bulldogs after they just cinched their 14th championship title.
The breakout stars of the show are suddenly on “Ellen” and “The Today Show,” sharing a stage with Oprah and doing Zoom calls with Biden. Some are doing ad spots with Buick; others raking in money by doing Cameo calls with random people willing to pay to hear their voices. Even Coach Monica — the eagle-eyed surrogate-mom who has a dash of Sandra-Bullock-in-The Blind Side about her — is so celebrated now, she’s asked to be on “Dancing With the Stars.” That is to say, all the high athleticism has now brought with it a new high kind of hustle: Netflix recognition. And with it, the fame maintenance that is so often its own Faustian bargain.
Not to mention, within the squad, its own existential divide: the animosity between those who were featured a lot on the show and those who were in the background, the famous and unfamous.
Even darker — and a by-product of all that attention — is the fall from grace of Jerry Harris, the breakout star of the first season. Mr. Positive. A bundle (or so we thought) of joy. In mid-2020, Harris was accused of sexual misconduct; later arrested and charged with myriad counts related to child pornography, with two underage boys (twins) alleging that the athlete had exploited them. Confronting all this head on — chiefly in Episode 5 this season — all the allegations against Harris are covered, including harrowing on-camera interviews with the two boys and their mother. It is a gut-punch, as far as filmmaking goes, and will inevitably provoke much debate.
The documentary, to its credit, covers it from a multitude of angles and does not let anyone off the hook. A truly OMG moment follows when Monica receives a letter from Jerry from jail, in which he — positive as ever — informs her that he wants to become a motivational speaker when “this is all over.”
His former teammate, Gabi Butler, almost speaks for the viewing audience when she talks about trying to reconcile the two versions of her friend: the earnest Samaritan and the alleged abuser. It is echoed by other teammates and, in so doing, the series dares to ask one of the harder questions that life can spring: do we really ever know anyone?
The second half of the nine-episode season — picking up after the season was grounded because of COVID-19, as was production of the documentary — gets back to the business of competition. The pyramids, they must go on. And cleverly, the show makes a good storytelling decision in expanding the universe of its characters by not just focusing on life at Navarro (where there are many new recruits, along with old faces) but also Navarro’s biggest rival: Trinity Valley Community College.
Now, with former student Vontae Johnson as Trinity coach and the hunger to beat Navarro, the mat rivalry is real. Onwards to Daytona for the showdown, some 727 days since they were last on the bandshell.
On both sides, there are plenty of personal stories to tell, including the one poor kid, Dee, who can flip like a banshee but has a hard time ever cracking a smile, inhibiting the performance imperative of cheer. Then there is the falling out between Monica and La’Darius, one of the standouts from the first season and between whom there was a tight bond. It is tough to watch. He feels betrayed, starts to lash out at her on social media. She seems mortally wounded.
Fame, again, seems to be the simmering subtext but a general reminder, too, that in sports — as in business and politics, and the mom group on Facebook — you can never take out the personal. So much ultimately comes down to hurt feelings, bruised egos, mommy issues, daddy issues, you-did-not-have-my-back issues.
Life is not always easy and there will always be curveballs. On and off the mat. Or as Monica puts it in a just-out memoir tied to the series, “Full Out,” “Healing emotionally is kind of like healing from an injury. You just have to allow yourself to experience what is uncomfortable, difficult, frustrating. The only way out is through … feel the pain, feel the sadness. Get up and do it again.”
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