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Cheer season 2 shows how fame changes everything

Cheer’s second season is a good story about cheerleading and a better story about the price of fame.

A cheer squad practices by trying to lift a cheerleader who is standing on one leg.
Cheer season two on Netflix.
Courtesy of Kyle Alexander/Netflix
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

At first blush, I didn’t really have any interest in watching the second season of Cheer, Netflix’s hit docuseries about competitive junior college cheerleading. It’s not because of quality. The first season was a hypnotizing blend of drama, athleticism, and triumph complete with real-life cheerleaders — a talented troublemaker, a diamond in the rough, a charming second-stringer, a diehard rookie, a superstar — and an icy, determined coach who seemed to be written for television.

I loved it.

But I also watched as those people from my beloved docuseries became real-life celebrities. It’s what happens to a lot of reality show personalities. They get on television and the followers start rolling in. The media attention skyrockets, the endorsement deals arrive, and then, instead of their lives creating the show, the show becomes their life.

In Cheer’s case, it gets even bleaker. In September 2020, season one star Jerry Harris was arrested by the FBI for allegedly soliciting child pornography. Later that year, in December, Harris was indicted on new charges alleging that he was soliciting minors to send him sexually explicit videos and photos of themselves.

Still, a friend urged me to watch, and soon I found myself fixated. The show had changed into something else entirely. Instead of showcasing talent, Cheer’s second season is laser-focused on how fame has affected America’s cheerleading sweethearts. It turns out that just a small amount of celebrity can turn heroes into villains, friends into enemies, and make winning feel a lot like losing.

Navarro becomes too famous too soon

The boldest move that creator Greg Whiteley made in the second season is not shying away from the impact of the show. Its success didn’t happen in a vacuum, and the first episodes really show you how popular coach Monica Aldama and the kids became. They met Kendall Jenner and Arizona Cardinals football player JJ Watt. They were given $20,000 on Ellen to upgrade their gym and got to hug Oprah. They’ve amassed massive followings on Instagram and some are raking in dollars on Cameo. Aldama was a contestant on the 29th season of Dancing With the Stars.

It’s not hard to read in between the lines and see why so many kids decided to come back for another go. Some of their rehearsed responses to media outlets, on social media, and recorded on the series about Navarro College being “a special place” do a lot of the work. They’re back in Navarro because it’s a meal ticket, and any young person would be an idiot not to take advantage of the possible endorsements, celebrity, and windfall that would come with a successful second season.

Initially, Coach Monica and Navarro College were portrayed as a Blind Side-like feel-good story. Her program, which dominates the two-team junior college division, was depicted as a lifeline for some troubled teens, possibly helping them to get away from broken homes and rough streets, and into college. While there are legitimate questions about what it means to take young, vulnerable people and put them in physically punishing situations, the show’s story was one of the mental and physical sacrifice it takes to achieve greatness.

Fame empirically changes that equation.

It turns the Navarro narrative into something else entirely. It doesn’t feel as pure or as good when you realize that maybe the kids didn’t come back because they needed a life lesson or Coach Monica’s discipline. Maybe they just needed to cash in on another season before fame runs out. You can almost taste the acidic resentment from team members who weren’t featured on the first season when they’re interviewed this time around. It doesn’t take that many episodes for some of those team members to pivot their personal stories toward the camera.

Courtesy of Kyle Alexander/Netflix

In the season one finale, it looked like a second season was in doubt because Varsity Spirit, a company that controls major cheerleading tournament coverage, did not seem to enjoy Navarro being filmed for its first season. Varsity did not allow Netflix’s crew access to the National Championship, and footage from Navarro’s performance was captured by attendees.

The other big question was if the show was going to continue given the very serious child abuse charges against star Jerry Harris. A second season of Cheer wouldn’t be truthful and probably wouldn’t exist if it didn’t examine Harris’s investigation and didn’t have team members and Aldama speaking out about it. While the show handles it directly, the people on it sometimes falter.

The show, then, isn’t really about the cheer program at all anymore, as much as it is about how impossible it is to wield fame.

It’s this enormous celebrity and good fortune that makes it, at times, difficult to empathize with Coach Monica when she complains about her life and the negativity from people on her social media. Her newfound fame has brought newfound haters, as is par for the course. She comes off as a person who does not fully recognize the amount of fame, prestige, and goodwill she’s received in such a short amount of time. Watching someone get what they — and many other people — want, and struggle with it always makes for a complex, even alienating viewing experience.

The make-or-break moment in the series happens when Coach Monica accepts an invite from Dancing With the Stars. In order to keep her participation a secret, she keeps her team in the dark, which is understandable. Sure. But a few interviews with her squad reveal that she was unreachable while filming, which eroded their trust in her. In her absence, a new assistant coach named Kailee Peppers asserts her power. Aldama chose the show, and the prestige that came with it, over coaching her team. That moment all but sours the promise that “coming to cheer for Coach Monica” used to hold.

Monica says that it’s partly because of the Dancing with the Stars fatigue and spotlight that she couldn’t properly deal with the shocking and infuriating child porn allegations facing Jerry Harris. The second season’s fifth episode lends its platform to the twin boys who allege that Jerry sexually assaulted and coerced them, and includes interviews with their mother.

Monica, we’re told from season one, cares about each of her kids and teaches them to be good humans. Jerry’s alleged behavior calls her relationship with him into question. With mounting evidence against Jerry and new indictments, Monica’s response is to complain about how she’s receiving negativity on social media, instead of marked concern about the very grave charges Jerry is facing, and for the well-being of the children who were allegedly involved. The coach who cares seems to be writing this incident off with an “I don’t know.”

If Cheer’s season one is about sacrifice — physical injury, pared-down social lives, moving to a nowhere town in Texas, relentless practices — to achieve greatness, season two is an unvarnished look at how that payoff can bring its own set of problems.

Enter: Trinity Valley

The second season of Cheer also benefits by having underdogs to root for in Trinity Valley Community College, Navarro’s main rivals. In the first installment, they’re portrayed almost like villains, the only team that stands in the way of Navarro’s destiny. But now they’re back, reloaded with a superstar rookie class, but without Navarro’s glitz, glamour, and $20,000 facility upgrade courtesy of Ellen DeGeneres.

Jada Wooten, a TVCC veteran who wants to take down Navarro’s Instagram-famous Goliath in her last year, is easy to root for. It’s do or die for Jada this time around. She takes it upon herself to give pep talks, to push her teammates, and to turn TVCC into a family unit.

She’s the right-hand woman of coach Vontae Johnson, who seems to provide a stark counter to Monica. Jada and her teammates credit him with helping them be better. Vontae points out that Navarro has its pick of polished athletes ready to compete (a television show will help you do that), while he finds athletes who have the most potential.

Jada, of Trinity Valley Community College’s cheer team.
Courtesy of Kyle Alexander/Netflix

That means teaching Jada to overcome her mental block and turning the “Weenies,” a group of uber-talented young men that defy gravity, into performers. The big problem with the Weenies is that despite their fantastic tumbling, they’re hung up on appearing masculine, and don’t want to smile or sass the way cheerleaders are supposed to.

Whether or not Vontae and his sidekick coach Khris Franklin can shape this team into a national champion and beat their more famous rivals becomes the central tension of the back half of the season.

At some points, the Trinity Valley team feels as though they were specifically created in a lab to be the perfect foils and underdogs to the Navarro juggernaut. Navarro has a new stage, while Trinity Valley unfurls their raggedy mats before every practice. Navarro’s superstar Gabi Butler is Instagram-famous, while Jada is relatively unknown to viewers. Navarro’s group of veterans knows how to win, while Trinity Valley is relying on rookies like dynamo Angel Rice. It makes for electric TV, and since the show has given Navarro enough slack to turn themselves into villains, it’s hard not to root for Trinity Valley in their national championship showdown.

What’s peculiar about this, though, is that the entire series underscores that this is all too good to be true. Fame is cyclical; it imploded Navarro, and Trinity Valley is up next to enter the celebrity assembly line. The spotlight has an uncanny way of unearthing secrets and testing character, in ways that Trinity Valley hasn’t yet faced. Celebrity killed Navarro’s feel-good story, and there’s no reason to think the same couldn’t happen to TVCC.

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