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With audiences facing another desultory slate of midseason broadcast premieres and looking for programming to cheer about, perhaps it’s not a coincidence that we’ve had an odd pocket of superb recent shows focusing on, yes, the high-intensity world of competitive cheerleading.
USA’s Dare Me, a cheerleading thriller about obsession, teens gone bad and the excitement of making Regionals, is already one of the new year’s most pleasant surprises, a juicy show that will surely find an audience at some point, even if it’s on the wrong network premiering at the wrong time.
Air date: Jan 08, 2020
Differently terrific, but probably more immediately suited to its environment, is Netflix’s Cheer. Hailing from some of the same team behind Netflix’s excellent Last Chance U, Cheer takes a similar docudrama approach to junior college cheerleading. Maybe a little hard sell is required to convince the Last Chance U audience that they want to dedicate six hours to being told that cheerleading is serious business, but it probably shouldn’t. Cheer is an utterly convincing portrait of what is unquestionably a real, and absurdly dangerous, sport complete with compelling stories that actually make it much more emotional and more exciting than the past couple Last Chance U seasons.
Our setting is Navarro College in tiny Corsicana, Texas, a cheerleading powerhouse with 13 national titles between 2000 and 2018. There’s a lot of pressure on the team, including coach Monica Aldama, as the 2019 competition season approaches and Cheer follows a very focused path from spring enrollment to the championship in Daytona just 68 days later.
For better or for worse, the past two Last Chance U seasons became The Jason Brown Show. The bombastic and belligerent coach made for great TV, while at the same time becoming an increasing black hole as Brown’s players were pushed to the background of an ongoing “Brilliant motivator or just an asshole?” debate. Aldama, in contrast, is a perfect combination of motivator and den mother, an inspiring and progressive coach with a University of Texas MBA and a precise vision for keeping the team on track. She has contradictions — she’s very Christian, fairly conservative and fiercely devoted to her gay cheerleaders — but not so many that the show becomes about her.
Executive producer Greg Whiteley, who directed the six episodes (two co-directed with fellow producers Arielle Kilker and Chelsea Yarnell), doesn’t need to overrely on Aldama, because the Navarro squad is packed with big personalities and big stories, with five getting standout treatment. There’s perky and winsome Morgan, raised under tumultuous circumstances in rural Wyoming and initially in over her head as she learns the difference between the rah-rah sideline cheering of her youth and the high-stakes athleticism of Navarro. There’s Gabi, a youth cheerleading icon with hundreds of thousands of social media followers and a cottage industry built around her name and likeness. There’s Lexi, a high-school dropout with a hair-trigger temper and otherworldly tumbling gifts. There’s La’Darius, bullied as a kid and constantly fighting his own attitude, practically the opposite of ultra-enthusiastic Jerry, who has battled weight issues and personal tragedy to become a lovable inspiration. Across the board, the investment is almost immediate.
The Navarro squad has 40 members and only 20 will get to be “on mat” at Nationals and so you know that Morgan, Gabi, Lexi, La’Darius and Jerry are going to be a big part of the Daytona equation — Gabi, Lexi and La’Darius start out as indispensable starters, with Morgan and Jerry as underdogs — but how they get there is a journey that involves twists, turns, bumps and bruises. So many bumps and bruises. If there’s anything Cheer wants you to take away from this first season, it’s that cheerleading is absolutely brutal. There’s an almost Monty Python-esque dark humor to the way that every single time the team practices its key pyramid stunt, you just know that somebody is going to hit the floor with a thud, crack or shriek of pain.
So maybe it’s not actually Monty Python-esque, because these are real broken bones, real concussions and real tears. So many tears. If you want to know the biggest difference between Last Chance U and Cheer it can be summed up in the scene in which a coach tells a disconsolate athlete, “Go to the bathroom, cry it out.” That would not be how Jason Brown rolls.
Another major difference is that Cheer begins with a strange need to justify itself. The premiere includes several cheerleading experts talking about the history of the sport and clearing up preconceptions, the sort of rudimentary primer that a docuseries about football would never, in a million years, feel like it had to offer. Thankfully, the initial fear that the show is going to overexplain cheerleading to a condescending degree doesn’t come to fruition. You’ll quickly learn the difference between flyers and stunters and tumblers, and eventually when stars say things like, “It’s either gonna be a whip full through to full full or it’s gonna be a full full through to full full,” the show just accepts that even if you don’t know exactly what they’re talking about, you get the gist. My feeling is always that if the people in the documentary buy into the stakes, the viewer probably will as well, and with Cheer, you’ll be fully invested leading up to a final episode that masterfully builds first tension and then real character-driven heft.
I’ve always wanted just a slightly deeper sociological push from Last Chance U and that carries over to Cheer, perhaps the differentiating factor between very good shows and great shows. The sexual politics and dynamics of cheerleading are on the table — Coach Aldama’s support and La’Darius’ backstory are both good starting points — without really getting deeply explored. The economic conditions of cheering, how it has evolved as a sport for the privileged through the high costs of gym time, equipment, coaching and all-star teams, are touched on as well and could have been given more time. There are conversations that are only getting started that are hard to sustain when people keep falling off the top of the pyramid.
The heightened drama of Dare Me and the grounded excitement and passion of Cheer are great complementary texts, welcome and very watchable validations of a sport that TV has previously shortchanged a bit. The days of The CW’s Hellcats are past.
Premieres Wednesday, Jan. 8, on Netflix.
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