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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

"Human beings are complicated people. As a filmmaking team, we're as good as anyone at creating a portrait and filming somebody authentically. But in the three months that we're allowed to film someone, we're not going to get to the bottom of someone," he says. "I think as long as we're humble about that, and that when we do learn something new, we have the integrity to also cover it, not ignore it, then I can sleep at night knowing I'm doing my job."

The news breaks during an already difficult time for the Navarro athletes, many of whom are struggling with the isolation of COVID-19 or floundering without the leadership of Aldama, who is away competing on "Dancing With the Stars." Harris' friends struggle to square the allegations with the person they know — and reach varying conclusions. "I don't care how famous you are," La'Darius Marshall, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, says in the episode. "That don't give you the right to do stuff like this, especially when you know one of your best friends went through something like that." A tearful Gabi Butler concludes, "I can't turn my back on him because he was there for me when I needed it."

"This was an event that was so impactful on the lives of the team. Even if Jerry was no longer physically present while we were filming, his presence still was very large," Whiteley says. "You could feel a team that was completely devastated. It was as though a close friend they thought they knew had died. And that isn't something that goes away in a week, or a month, or even a year."

Season 2 finds Aldama and her team dealing with the roller-coaster ride of celebrity. They marvel at the opportunities they've received because of the show — like trying avocado toast for the first time — and use downtime between practice to record lucrative Cameo messages. But the spotlight also creates tension, particularly when Aldama agrees to go on "Dancing With the Stars" and appoints a replacement coach, the improbably named Kailee Peppers, during a vulnerable time.

Aldama, the stoic heroine of Season 1, emerges as a more fallible figure this time around, bristling at the criticism she gets on social media and having a painful falling out with one of her star athletes. "There is a certain emotional vulnerability that she shared with us under some very, very difficult circumstances. I left that interaction admiring her more than I did in Season 1," Whiteley says.

Whiteley also introduces us to a new cast of compelling characters, including Navarro's arch-rivals at Trinity Valley Community College, who finished in second place in 2019 and are hungry for a comeback.

The team is led by coach Vontae Johnson, a soft-spoken former football player who was eager to be a part of "Cheer." "We liked how it portrayed the athletes and athleticism. There's no way that we would turn it down this season," he says.

 

Johnson encourages his cheerleaders to go out of their comfort zone and put on a showier performance in order to close the gap with the Navarro squad, which is known for its high-energy style.

"You've got the best cheerleading programs in the history of cheerleading separated by 30 miles. It didn't take a genius to go, 'We should spend more time with this other school,'" Whiteley says.

The decision to follow TVCC may have been a no-brainer, but it also made it even more excruciating for the filmmaker to document the teams when they finally faced off in Daytona Beach last April. Whiteley recalls the disorienting experience of being with the losing team as they wept over the results, then following the winners as they took a joyful ceremonial plunge into the ocean. He knew that "if we could somehow get an audience to feel even a semblance of what I'm feeling right now," they'd have a special season, he says.

"There aren't good guys in this and bad guys in this. There are two teams, and we want the audience to love them both."

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