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Under Netflix's harsh spotlight, a 'devastated' cheerleading squad tries to regroup

Meredith Blake, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

When "Cheer" was released in January 2020, the Netflix docuseries about elite cheerleaders at a Texas community college became an instant cultural sensation. Within weeks, it turned tough-as-nails coach Monica Aldama and her gritty athletes into overnight celebrities who got spoofed on "Saturday Night Live," appeared on "Ellen" and interviewed Brad Pitt on the Oscars red carpet.

As inspiring as it was unflinching, "Cheer" resonated well beyond the cheerleading community because it told a story about young people overcoming unthinkable adversity — including poverty, sexual abuse and parental neglect — to compete in a physically and emotionally punishing sport often dismissed as a sideline spectacle.

But the hardships of Season 1 are nothing compared to Season 2. In the nine episodes that premiered Wednesday on Netflix, the series documents a turbulent two years interrupted by a deadly pandemic, upended by disturbing allegations against a beloved teammate and tainted by the pressures of newfound fame.

"There are some pretty complicated issues that we raised in Season 1," says director Greg Whiteley, "but not quite like what we had to tackle in Season 2."

The Navarro College athletes and their rivals at Trinity Valley Community College, who are newly featured in Season 2, were weeks away from vying for the National Cheerleaders Association championship in Daytona Beach, Florida, when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the world in March 2020. Daytona was canceled, leaving the athletes without a competition, and "Cheer" without a finale or a clear narrative path forward.

Then, things got worse.

 

In September 2020, Jerry Harris, the ebullient underdog whose giddy mat talk, heartbreaking backstory and infectious passion for cheerleading made him Season 1's breakout star, was arrested and charged with production of child pornography for allegedly soliciting and receiving explicit material from a minor over social media. In December he was indicted on additional child pornography charges. (He has denied the allegations.)

Whiteley and his crew returned to Texas in early 2021 — nearly a full year after COVID hit — to follow the cheerleaders as they regrouped after a lost season and grappled with the allegations against Harris.

"Cheer" addresses the charges head on, examining the case and its impact on Harris' teammates in a gut-wrenching episode called "Jerry." Whiteley interviews Sam and Charlie (their last names are not disclosed), the twin brothers who allege that Harris solicited them for sex and explicit photos; their mother; and their lawyer, Sarah Klein, who criticizes Aldama for what she sees as an insufficient statement in response to the allegations. ("I have no sympathy for her," Klein says.)

Whiteley says he never considered not moving forward with the series in light of the allegations against Harris. Nor did he feel that he had somehow misrepresented his subject in Season 1.

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