When “Cheer” released in January 2020, Netflix’s docuseries about elite Texas community college cheerleaders became an instant cultural sensation. Within weeks, he turned tough trainer Monica Aldama and her rough athletes into overnight celebrities who were spoofed on “Saturday Night Live”, appeared on “Ellen” and interviewed Brad Pitt on the red carpet of Oscars.
As inspiring as it was unfazed, “Cheer” resonated far beyond the cheerleader community as it told the story of young people overcoming unthinkable adversity – including poverty, sexual abuse and parental neglect – for participating in a physically and emotionally punitive sport often dismissed as a side spectacle.
But the struggles of Season 1 are nothing compared to Season 2. In all nine episodes airing Wednesday on Netflix, the series documents two eventful years interrupted by a deadly pandemic, shattered by disturbing allegations against a beloved and tainted teammate. by the pressures of renewed fame.
“There are some pretty complicated issues that we brought up in Season 1,” says director Greg Whiteley, “but not quite like what we had to resolve in Season 2.”
Athletes from Navarro College and their rivals from Trinity Valley Community College, who are newly featured in Season 2, were weeks away from fighting for the National Cheerleaders Association Championship in Daytona Beach when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the world in March 2020. Daytona has been canceled, leaving the athletes without competition, and “Cheer” with no final or clear narrative path to follow.
Then things got worse.
In September 2020, Jerry Harris, the exuberant underdog whose dizzying speech, heart-wrenching story and infectious passion for cheerleaders made him the star of season 1, was arrested and charged with producing pornography juvenile for allegedly soliciting and receiving explicit material from a minor on social media. media. In December, he was charged with additional charges of child pornography. (He denied the allegations.)
Whiteley and his team returned to Texas in early 2021 – nearly a year after the COVID hit – to follow the cheerleaders as they regroup after a lost season and grapple with the allegations against Harris.
“Cheer” tackles the accusations head-on, examining the case and its impact on Harris’s teammates in a heart-wrenching episode called “Jerry”. Whiteley interviews Sam and Charlie (their last names withheld), the twin brothers who claim Harris solicited them for sexual and explicit photos, their mother and their lawyer, Sarah Klein, who criticizes Aldama for what she said. considers it an insufficient declaration in responding to the allegations. (“I have no sympathy for her,” Klein says.)
Whiteley says he never considered not moving forward with the series in light of the allegations against Harris. He also didn’t feel like he had twisted his subject in Season 1.
“Human beings are complicated people. As a team of directors, we are as good as anyone at creating a portrait and filming someone in an authentic way. But in the three months that we’re allowed to film someone, we’re not going to get to anybody’s bottom. I think as long as we’re humble about it, and when we learn something new, we have the integrity to cover it up as well, not to ignore it, then I can sleep through the night knowing that I do. my work . “
The news comes during an already difficult time for Navarro’s athletes, many of whom are struggling with COVID-19 isolation or struggling without the leadership of Aldama, who participates in “Dancing With the Stars.” Harris’s friends struggle to reconcile the allegations with the person they know – and come to varying conclusions. “I don’t care how famous you are,” La’Darius Marshall, a childhood sexual abuse survivor, said in the episode. “It doesn’t give you the right to do things like that, especially when you know that one of your best friends has gone through something like this. Gabi Butler, in tears, concludes, “I can’t turn my back on him because he was there for me when I needed him.”
“It was an event that had a great impact on the life of the team. Even though Jerry was no longer physically present during filming, his presence was still very important, ”explains Whiteley. “You could feel a team completely devastated. It was as if a close friend they thought they knew had died. And it’s not something that goes away in a week, a month, or even a year.
Season 2 finds Aldama and his team facing the roller coaster of stardom. They marvel at the opportunities they received from the show – like trying avocado toast for the first time – and use the downtime between workouts to record lucrative Cameo messages. But the spotlight also creates tension, especially when Aldama agrees to continue “Dancing with the Stars” and appoints a replacement coach, the unlikely name Kailee Peppers, during a vulnerable period.
Season 1’s stoic heroine Aldama comes across as a more fallible figure this time around, bristling at the criticisms she receives on social media and having a painful fallout with one of her star athletes. “There is a certain emotional vulnerability that she shared with us under very, very difficult circumstances. I left that interaction admiring it more than I did in Season 1, ”says Whiteley.
Whiteley also introduces us to a new cast of fascinating characters, including Navarro’s rivals at Trinity Valley Community College, who finished second in 2019 and are thirsty for a comeback.
The team is led by coach Vontae Johnson, a soft-spoken former football player who was eager to be a part of “Cheer”. “We liked the way he portrayed athletes and track and field. There’s no way we’re going to turn it down this season, ”he said.
Johnson encourages his cheerleaders to step out of their comfort zone and perform more spectacularly in order to close the gap with Navarro’s team, known for their energetic style.
“You have the best cheerleading programs in cheerleading history 30 miles apart. It didn’t take a genius to say, “We should spend more time with this other school,” Whiteley says.
The decision to follow TVCC might have been a no-brainer, but it also made it even more excruciating for the filmmaker to document the teams when they finally faced off at Daytona Beach last April. Whiteley recalls the disorienting experience of being with the losing team as she mourned over the results, then following the winners as they took a happy, ceremonial dive into the ocean. He knew that “if we could somehow make an audience feel even a semblance of what I’m feeling right now,” they would have a special season, says Whiteley. .
“There are no good guys and bad guys in there. There are two teams and we want the public to like them both.