Netflix’s ‘CHEER’ returns stronger than ever with a raw, emotionally engrossing second season

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Preston Barta // Features Editor

CHEER: SEASON 2

Rated TV-MA, about 479 minutes (nine episodes around 50 minutes each)
Available today to stream exclusively on Netflix.

You can tell when you’re watching a documentary where everyone feels like they have a knife in their side by the studio. Subjects tend only to smile and say that they had a good time. Any real drama is left off the mat – only enough to keep all parties involved happy.

However, that’s not Cheer

Netflix’s mega-hit docuseries rose to the top two years ago because it didn’t hold back in revealing the brutal truth of what it takes to be a cheer star. The self-discipline, physical demands and mental navigation — it’s a lot. We got to see some kids step out of the darkness, leave behind their broken homes and travel to virtually Nowhere, U.S.A. (a.k.a. Navarro Community College in Corsicana, Texas), to shine with all their flipping, flying and hoisting strength. 

Cheer caused the uninitiated to see cheerleading as more than mere hype people on the sidelines of sports games. This series examined the blood, sweat and tears of cheer in the same fashion David Fincher tackles crime. (The camera work with its pushes and pulls, matching human behavior, as well as the musical score, feeling haunting.) 

Through the uplifting and heartbreaking moments of the show, we fell in love with the Navarro team, its head coach (Monica Aldama) and the surrounding Texas community to the point where everyone felt like family and friends. We wanted to see them succeed and only spread joy across the world. 

But then a dark, dark cloud fell over their success, both their accomplishments as a team and television show.

Not only did COVID tear down what they built, but one of its breakout stars, Jerry Harris, was arrested on a federal child pornography charge. The news shocked the nation. How could a seemingly sweet and fun young man have such a dark secret? As one subject says in its second season, there’s no knowing who people are behind closed doors. It was sad to imagine what that did for everyone who loved Jerry – his Navarro teammates, his coach and family. How could anyone pick their spirits back up after the unthinkable?

“By putting one foot in front of the other each day,” says Coach Monica during the second season opening.

Right away, Season 2 doesn’t shy away from dropping us into the team’s heartbreak. We travel from one person’s perspective to the next like a fly on the wall. That’s the most unbelievable aspect of the series’ second go: How does everyone feel comfortable sharing such information and details without worrying about the repercussions? It’s as if the cameras aren’t even there for the talent on screen. (Probably because they’ve become so close to the filmmakers over the past four or so years.) How the documentary filmmakers got what they did is a mystery, and it makes for incredible television.

It’s clear that the filmmakers originally planned to tackle Season 2 by doing the same thing over again. But they were going to shake it up by highlighting a rival team (Trinity Valley Community College) to leave you torn on who to root for. (Think the 2011 sports drama Warrior.) While that’s still a narrative component, things naturally become more complex as the allegations and COVID hit. From there, this study of cheerleading breaks and bends beyond what you could imagine. Arguments, heartbreak and deception take hold, widening the focus to a survey on human nature during challenging times. How does one avoid the temptation to hurt people when you yourself are so hurt? 

It’s sad where this second season goes, but you can’t look away. It’s beautiful, tragic and intoxicating.

Grade: A-

About author

Preston Barta

I have been working as a film journalist since 2010, dividing the first four years between radio broadcasting and entertainment writing in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. In 2014, I entered Fresh Fiction (FreshFiction.tv) as the features editor. The following year, I stepped into the film critic position at the Denton Record-Chronicle, a daily North Texas print publication. My time is dedicated to writing theatrical film reviews, at-home entertainment columns, and conducting interviews with on-screen talent and filmmakers, as well as hosting a podcast devoted to genre filmmaking (called My Bloody Podcast). I've been married for seven happy years, and I have one son who is all about dinosaurs just like his dad.