Minor spoilers ahead. It only takes about five minutes into the season 2 premiere of Netflix’s Cheer to realize that this is going to be a very different season. When we last saw the Navarro College Bulldogs from Corsicana, Texas, they’d just won the 2019 Cheerleading Nationals (their 14th title), and everyone was thriving. But in the time since the January 2020 premiere, a lot has changed, both within the world of cheerleading and the world at large. We’ve gone through two (almost three) years of a pandemic, and the team is dealing with the repercussions of both shutdowns (Daytona was canceled just weeks out), as well as coming to terms with the sex crime charges filed against fan favorite Jerry Harris.
“It’s been a very difficult year. We’ve had a rollercoaster. A lot of great opportunities and a lot of awful times,” says the team’s prolific coach, Monica Aldama, in the first episode. “I keep putting one foot in front of the other, every single day,” she later says.
It’s a far cry in tone than from what fans have come to know and love. Cheer introduced many people to collegiate cheerleading as they followed a small-town team on the road to the annual showdown in Daytona, Florida. The first season was thrilling, in large part because it was so new (who can confidently say they knew what mat talk was before this) and because the cheerleaders’ personal stories were both heartfelt and engaging.
Regardless of whether we ourselves cheered or knew anything about the competitive sport, people could relate to the trials and tribulations of being a young person trying to find their place. Yes, they were competing, but they were also dealing with family drama, frenemies, and real-world issues, on top of performing intense death-defying stunts. The show allowed us to look beyond what many might see as frivolous choreography into the reality of cheerleading as a sport: hard work, sweat, tears, and a whole lot of love. In the end, we weren’t just cheering for Navarro, but rooting for Jerry to find success both on and off the mat after losing his mom to cancer, La’Darius to find peace with his past, and Lexi to channel her raw talent.
When we return to Corsicana though, Cheer isn’t really about cheerleading anymore, at least not how we first saw it. Sure, there is still a cheer competition, with Navarro pitted against rivals Trinity Valley Community College, but the real narrative is about the effects of fame and the exploitation inherent in the sport. And that’s a good thing. If the first season puts these characters — and the sport — up on a pedestal, season 2 really knocks them down into reality. With the emphasis taken off the actual cheerleading, we’re able to take a hard look at the dirt beneath the pyramid and grapple with some of the sport’s bigger issues.
The second season was always going to be different. Director and producer Greg Whiteley says he didn’t go into it with any goal other than to chronicle the team and their stories. But it’s inevitable that there would be some difference — because the team itself is different. “There is a kind of innocence to season 1 that I think was part and parcel to how little we knew about cheer, and it was discovering this new thing and sharing that with the world,” he tells Refinery29. “And then as we were coming back, what had changed was the team that we were chronicling had become famous.”
The first episode specifically deals with the team attempting to come to terms with their newfound fame in the weeks following the show’s premiere, with stars like Aldama, La’Darius Marshall, Morgan Simianer, and Lexi Brumback jumping between press interviews and engagements in between, and sometimes during, practices. Harris’ “mat talk,” once endearing and motivating, is now more of a talk show staple as the docuseries shows a montage of his motivational pep talks on Ellen, The Today Show, and on stage with Oprah Winfrey, Simianer is doing TV spots with Buick, and Brumback is selling Cameo vids for $50 a pop. Coach Aldama, for her part, competes on Season 29 of Dancing with the Stars.
This commercialization is a side of the sport that viewers saw in Season 1 through Gabi Butler, a “cheer-lebrity” who was already famous in the world before starting at Navarro. But watching the “down-to-earth, just-like-us” personalities we’ve come to love capitalize their authenticity for profit is like pulling back the curtain on a PR fame machine in a way that feels manufactured. Harris’ infamous mat talk feels a little less inspiring when you’re watching him film Cameos for fans while getting a pedicure, repeating the same phrases over and over again.
Watching the cheerleaders' newfound fame is illuminating, but also reveals its pitfalls. There’s a hefty dose of animosity and jealousy between “famous” and “unfamous” members of the 40-person team, and Aldama personally deals with a lot of hate directed at her online, with viewers accusing the coach of pushing injured athletes to their limits. But it also presents us with a team that, no longer the underdogs and with their attention diverted from Daytona, is a little more difficult to root for. Coupled with the fact that the new season began filming pre-pandemic and before the allegations against Harris came to light, you know there are bad things looming, which makes newcomer Maddy Brum's freak out over being removed from a stunt seem a little inconsequential.
Also different about the team this year? The absence of Harris, who appears sporadically in the first few episodes of the season before disappearing entirely. Though he is out of the frame, his real-life drama stays in focus.
In September 2020, Harris was arrested and charged with several counts related to child pornography, after two underage boys alleged the athlete had solicited sexually explicit images from them. That December, Harris faced additional charges. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges. “That decision of whether or not to cover the allegations against Jerry Harris was decided the moment you decided to cover Navarro as a team,” Whiteley says. “[He] was a very important part of that team, his absence loomed large on the day-to-day activities of that team, and we had to chronicle it. It would have been impossible to tell their story without accounting for it somehow.” Harris’ story is not unique to the sport. Last February, another former member of the Navarro cheer team was charged with sexual misconduct involving minors. Around the same time, a 25-year-old cheer coach and choreographer in Virginia was charged for similar crimes.
In covering the specific allegations against Harris, including incredibly harrowing on-camera interviews with two of his accusers, the docuseries illustrates how power and the dynamic between coaches and mentors and their young athletes can be exploited, and shows the gaps in protecting young people in the sport. (The fact that the mother of two of Harris’s accusers reported the abuse multiple times to the U.S. All Star Federation (USASF) — an organization whose goal is to ensure safety for all athletes — before anything was done is horrifying, but unfortunately not surprising).
The Jerry episode doesn’t exactly get it right. It presents context behind how the cheer environment can facilitate and, in some ways, normalize this abuse, but there are few solutions on how exactly the sport and those high up can change it. Cheer doesn’t solve the issues of exploitation — how could it in one episode? — but at least it starts a conversation.
Harris’ former teammate Butler talks about her struggle to reconcile the two versions of her friend: the cheerful sweetheart and the alleged abuser, mourning the loss of that person as if he died. And in many ways, we can think of Cheer season 2 in the same way. The team we once knew is no longer the same, and by virtue of this, neither is the docuseries. That magical earnestness captured in the first season can’t be replicated, and to go into the second season expecting the same would be a disservice to both ourselves as viewers and the show as a whole. Sure, by the end of the second season, one team wins, one team loses, and the winners run into the water at Daytona Beach. But the real story, as the second season attempts to do, is what happens off the bandshell, starting conversations that’ll hopefully have an impact on the sport long past next year’s championship.
If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please call the RAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).