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Sure, fans of Greg Whiteley’s Last Chance U knew the show’s basic formula and how effective it was in terms of building personal stories within a season of escalating athletic tension. But Cheer thrilled an audience that had never heard of Last Chance U and probably still hasn’t. Fans found joy in Jerry’s mat-talk, optimism in Morgan’s rise to the literal top of the pyramid and felt sincere concern for mercurial presences like Lexi and La’Darius.
Airdate: Wednesday, January 12
Creator: Greg Whiteley
Then Cheer wasn’t an underdog anymore. Ellen was cutting Navarro College giant checks, coach Monica Aldama was a big enough stand-alone sensation to appear on Dancing with the Stars and it became impossible to discuss the show without the depressing background knowledge that Jerry had been arrested on child sex charges.
It’s a journey that is mirrored and depicted in the second season of Cheer, which hits Netflix more than two years after the first debuted. The explosive rise of Navarro and the series itself is central to the season, as is the adversity brought about by COVID-19 and by the intrusion of real-life darkness. At the same time, Navarro itself, with all of its cheer championships, was no longer capable of being presented as a dark-horse program and Whiteley and his team, including regular co-director Chelsea Yarnell, had to establish a near-equal focus on nearby Trinity Valley Community College, a near-equally decorated program that only looks like an underdog when compared to Navarro.
If the first season of Cheer was a marvel of neatness and economy — the rare docuseries that, at six episodes, actually felt too short — the second season has been forced to become a more ambitious thing, addressing a wider range of topical concerns. But covering an expanded amount of time and an expanded number of issues, even with an expanded (nine now) number of episodes, doesn’t come smoothly. There are provocative and entertaining things in the season of Cheer, but it is a messier piece of work and, perhaps somewhat by design, a less satisfying one.
The best way to illustrate the structural mess is simply to break down how the season was put together. Think of it as plot summary.
The first four episodes are set in the spring of 2020, with most of the primary figures from the initial run returning for another trip to Daytona and hopes of another championship as Cheer is launching. Even with the introduction of TVCC and coach Vontae Johnson — presented exclusively as Navarro rivals in the first season — it’s a lot of the same people from the first season, to the point of contrivance. When we left things, Jerry was going to Louisville, Lexi had been separated from Navarro for unspecified reasons and Gabi had gone off to continue her professional career. Then suddenly they’re all back, with no explanation other than that they missed Navarro, and it’s just a coincidence that the opening hour is dedicated to how everybody associated with the team became a superstar and found themselves with lucrative tie-in opportunities. Anyway, the first four episodes are building to March of 2020, so you know what that means.
The fifth episode, after COVID scrapped America and Navarro’s spring, is centered around Jerry and his arrest, the feelings of betrayal on the team and interviews with the twins whose accusation led to Jerry’s incarceration. It’s a powerful, hour-long punch to the gut, one that simultaneously indicts the gymnastics establishment and shows like Cheer for their ability to manufacture and narrativize “characters” and make us embrace figures who we think we know based on a perilously limited information base. Even if you don’t think what happened with Jerry reflects horribly on Monica and Navarro — a pair of other Navarro veterans arrested on different sex crime charges are largely ignored — it’s nearly impossible to watch the fifth episode and say, “Well OK, now I’m ready to go back to talk of tumblers and flyers.”
But return it does, and the season’s last four episodes jump to the 2020-21 school year. Another trip to Daytona is on the line, but suddenly half of our favorite figures vanish, we’re introduced to a mostly new group of participants and it’s a steady build to a championship that gets stretched across a two-part finale that, more than anything, left me wondering if any other schools even compete against Navarro and Trinity Valley in Daytona. If there’s a third team cheering at that level, they’re mentioned even less than “homework.”
The fifth episode is the one people are going to talk about, complete with its introductory trigger warning and contact information for viewers who have experienced abuse themselves. It’s important, and it’s important to have the victims putting their names and faces to their story. It’s not a thing that Cheer was designed to handle, but Whiteley and company attempt to address the unfathomable in a serious-minded way.
It’s the two miniseries on either side of that fifth episode that struggle.
Those first four episodes could have been two episodes, if that. The returning “characters” are there taking up space, but none of them have storylines other than, “Well, now we’re famous and that changed everything.” It’s an opportunity, I guess, to get a first look at figures like Navarro up-and-comer Maddy, who initially seems to have “growing up in Massachusetts” as her primary source of adversity until we learn about her family and their dark secrets. Viewers also get the chance to meet Jada, a star over at Trinity Valley, as well as likable Navarro rookies/roommates Gillian and Cassadee.
The last four episodes, especially the two Daytona episodes, could have been trimmed as well. With the storylines going back and forth between two schools, the characters become secondary to the ticking clock approaching the title. They’re often overshadowed by old business, like La’Darius’ out-of-nowhere social media campaign against Monica and a fall season that Monica skipped entirely for an ABC reality show — an abandonment for which the show cuts her far too much slack.
There’s so much happening and the narrative through-line becomes so fuzzy, you barely notice how many of the big talking points of the first season have been pushed to the background instead of benefiting from more exploration. For example, the first season was near-obsessed with injuries, probably because the filmmakers wanted to emphasize the harsh physical conditions in advanced cheerleading. But many critics of the show felt that Cheer ended up glorifying the bodily harm and the coaches and schools that exploit those bodies. So the second season has stripped away the pervasive sound of bodies crunching into the mats, of bones breaking and athletes sobbing in pain, keeping only regular vomiting in trashcans as a reminder.
The show is still struggling to get into the sexual politics of the sport as well. The number of gay athletes came up in the first season primarily to illustrate that despite being a church-going Texan, Monica is still open and loving. The second season becomes more eyebrow-raising and less clarifying as folks hint at how appropriating an ostensibly or performatively gay attitude and swagger has been the secret of Navarro’s success, one that Trinity Valley struggles to copy, but then… it ceases to be a conversation point.
Ultimately, the mess is only partially unintentional. While a six-episode, tightly produced season might have been ideal, these two years have been anything but ideal, and the new season’s structure probably needed to reflect that. The first season felt efficient and emotionally clear. In the second season, emotional clarity is impossible, and you can sense every choice the documakers are making — for better or worse.
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