Fifty-three seconds into the first episode of Netflix’s docuseries Cheer, teenaged Morgan talks about pain. Fifty-four seconds into Cheer, she’s thrown into the air, twisting and flipping like a fish on a line. She comes careening back down into three sets of arms one second later, and she lands with a thunderclap of brutality, muscle smacking against muscle.
“Are you okay, Morgan?” someone asks. My untrained eye can’t pick up what’s wrong — just that something is wrong. And though Morgan walks off the rough landing, her body, gingerly stiff and wobbling unevenly, is what I think it looks like to silently scream.
After watching Cheer’s first 55 seconds, I knew I was going to spend the next six hours of my life breathing, consuming, Googling, and social media-stalking everything about the show. I knew then that it was my favorite new show of this very young year.
Cheer focuses on a competitive sport that fuses turgid, erotic tribalism with the body-breaking violence of muscular humans flinging tinier, lighter humans into the air and then catching them — callused hands atop thickly taped wrists, clawing into triceps and ankles. To that mixture, the show adds the us-against-the-world mentality of Charles Xavier’s X-Men and the small-town glamour of Friday Night Lights.
This is competitive junior college cheerleading at the dynastic Navarro College. This is Cheer. And this show is ballistically addictive.
Cheer finds the urgency and drama in competitive community college cheerleading
Cheer takes place in the mecca of junior college competitive cheerleading, a place called Navarro College, Navarro for short. It’s in a town 60 miles south of Dallas called Corsicana, and absolutely nothing competes with the Navarro cheerleaders. They are the biggest and only thing in town, having won 14 National Cheerleaders Association National Championships and five “grand national” wins, which basically means they got the highest score at the national championships regardless of division and designation.
But while the Navarro Bulldogs dominate on the mat, they’re still underdogs.
Director Greg Whiteley (of Netflix’s college football docuseries Last Chance U) doesn’t shy away from showing the grim reality of many of these cheerleaders’ futures. Not many have options beyond cheering at this National Championship-caliber school, many stating that the team is the only thing that’s keeping them from getting into trouble or making bad decisions. The one kid who has seemingly solid post-cheer prospects, an Instagram “cheerlebrity” with nearly a million followers, is blatantly being used by her parents as a cash cow.
Even then, the escape Navarro cheer offers these young women and men is temporary, as cheerleading is something that ends after college. Professional cheerleading is more like dancing, and those gigs aren’t usually fairly paid. This makes the years spent at Navarro so important for the kids there, especially the ones who would otherwise be at risk and out of school.
In the crosshairs of Cheer’s urgency, desperation, and drama are the National Championships in Daytona Beach, Florida. Specifically, the national championship performance, the two minutes and 15 seconds that’s relegated to an intricate and difficult routine where anything, even moves drilled into muscle memory by thousands of repetitions, could go wrong. And it’s coach Monica Aldama’s job to create a team that won’t break in those 135 seconds, as she’s done 14 times in her life.
I want coach Monica Aldama to step on my neck
The pressure cooker of Navarro’s National Championship hopes is compelling television, no doubt. People go down to Daytona Beach every year to see the competition in person and now, in the age of streaming, you can watch competitions online — these are clearly events worth watching. But the high stakes aren’t what make Cheer special. It’s getting attached to a group of young men and women and watching them crack or triumph in that pressure cooker scenario that is Cheer’s defining quality.
Whiteley found the perfect cast of characters at Navarro, and it all begins with Coach Monica.
Monica, as we’re reminded throughout the series (even if we don’t need to be), hates to lose more than she loves to win. She’s referred to as the Nick Saban of college cheer. Saban, for the non-football-fluent, is the head football coach of the University of Alabama, a dynasty of a program than seemingly wins every single year. But Monica wins more than Saban; that’s how determined she is to always come in first.
Slim, often clad in boots and a classy knit, Monica runs a Hunger Games of cheerleading. Her squad rolls 40 deep, with only 20 cheerleaders getting to perform at Daytona. She tells them loud and clear that they’re all replaceable, that there’s always someone waiting on the sidelines to take their place.
“She doesn’t put up with weakness,” her husband Chris says with a look in his eye that tells the audience at home his wisdom comes from personal knowledge. “If you don’t come in thinking like a champion, you’re probably not going to do well.”
Monica herself doesn’t play nice. In episode three, in front of the entire team, she replaces one of her kids because of what she considers the cheerleader’s lack of effort. It leads one member to believe his spot is lost, and the one who replaces him on the team to think he’s finally made it. And then Monica switches it all back over again.
And throughout the season, she plays a Machiavellian scheme and pits two girls — one not as talented but fearless, the other more talented but a nervous wreck — against each other for a spot.
While all these plates are spinning, the kids are getting concussed, throwing themselves into dangerous stunts, and clobbering their bodies to crack into those top 20 slots. Everyone wants to please Monica, because disappointing her isn’t an option.
I suppose there’s some part of Whiteley that believes, especially in episode three where Monica runs a practice so hard that one of her injured male cheerleaders is reduced to heaving tears, that buying into the extreme nature of Monica’s coaching style is unhealthy. Yet Cheer taps into the often-unexplored desire to impress and please your supervisor. Having someone as tough as Monica see progress in your weak, unworthy soul is sexy and validating.
“People have broken their necks doing this, but Monica needs me to do it, so I’ll just do it. I would take a bullet for her,” says Morgan, a cheerleader competing to be part of Monica’s intricate, body-rupturing pyramid. But instead of disagreeing with her, I found myself nodding.
Morgan and the rest of the cheerleaders can sleep when they’re dead.
Morgan is Monica’s favorite. She grew up with a dad that neglected her and her brother and had them live in a trailer by themselves. You get the idea from this abuse that nothing Morgan could ever do would make him love her, so naturally she responds with boundless loyalty to the morsels of praise Monica spoon-feeds her.
Monica’s winning squad includes kids like Morgan who have already seemingly lived lifetimes. Lexi, a tumbler as strong as the boys, quit high school, ran away from home, and was in and out of jail by her junior year. Jerry, an effervescent bundle of joy, saw his mom die of cancer. Ladarius is uber-talented but emotionally volatile to his peers — the volatility he says he learned from growing up in a rough neighborhood and playing football. And Gabi, the Instagram-famous cheerlebrity, is one of Monica’s ringers but is plagued by her two ghoulish pageant parents.
Each of these young people has damage in their life. They seek Monica’s guidance, and hopefully, with her wisdom and relentlessness, they win. In Cheer, winning that National Championship seems a whole lot like healing, a magic bullet that will cure these kids’ problems and better their lives. But at its core, Cheer also understands the lie therein: that winning, like healing, is fleeting. Everyone gets hurt again, and everyone starts over again. It’s inevitable.