Corsicana, Texas, has two major exports: fruitcake and elite cheerleading.
“Cheer,” the docu-series which dropped on Netflix on Jan. 8, explores the latter.
The 24,000-person, blood-red conservative town is described by its residents as gently paced and quiet, but the cheer team at Navarro College is anything but. Watching the team perform is an overwhelming thrill ― it’s hard to know where to look as the cheerleaders flip, tumble, jump and fly in perfect formation. (Until, you know, they don’t, and someone ends up horribly injured.) The junior college has been regularly winning national championships since 2000, under the captivating and terrifying perfectionist guidance of coach Monica Aldama.
Aldama, who has been coaching at Navarro for 24 years, is treated by her cheerleaders (“her kids,” as she calls them), as both a mother figure and a god. She’s a character almost perfectly calibrated to be appealing to a wide swath of viewers: a beautiful, conservative, religious mother who will argue with her pastor about gay rights, and supports one of her cheerleaders without judgement when someone posts nude photos of the young woman on Twitter.
The six episodes in “Cheer” follow the Navarro team as they prepare for the National Cheerleading Association’s championship in Daytona Beach, Florida. The journey is (literally) full of blood, sweat and tears.
Three HuffPost reporters devoured “Cheer” this week, and had no shortage of thoughts about the series.
The Bottom Line
“Cheer” is a heartwarming series that gives real insight into the wild world of elite cheerleading, while providing an entertaining and substantive distraction from the winter blues.
Emma Gray: Guys, I just finished Netflix’s “Cheer” today, and I think I have already forgotten what life was like before I was deeply invested in the Navarro College Cheer team. This docu-series is a riveting, heartfelt peek into the world of elite collegiate cheerleading, something that I admit I knew painfully little about outside of fictional depictions like “Bring It On.” But six episodes of television later, I want more ― both on cheerleading and on the lives of the young adults that populate Navarro’s program. Also, all I want in the world now is to earn the approval of Navarro head coach Monica Aldama. Matt, Leigh, what did you guys think?
Leigh Blickley: Perusing my Netflix queue last weekend, I debated whether to watch “The Circle” before spotting the “Cheer” key art. Ten minutes into the first episode, I was hooked. Flips, twists, falls, a crazy coaching staff. I was enthralled by the athleticism, but also by the emotional state of the team and their advisors. I just knew something much more was going on here than the pursuit of a national championship title.
Matthew Jacobs: What a spirited and big-hearted show. From my tiny corner of the world, everyone seems to be talking about it, which is a hopeful thing to see. I dig “Cheer” most as a snapshot of a sport ― a lifestyle, really ― that often goes unrecognized. Cheerleading has everything: community, competition, capitalism. As a series, it left me with a ton of lingering questions, but I enjoyed the hell out of these scrappy athletes.
The Cast of Characters
EG: Before we get into some of the overarching themes of the series (which, as you pointed out, Matt, are many), we need to talk about the characters. It’s been fascinating to see how attached people who watch “Cheer” seem to become to all of the major players (myself included!). The magic of a good docu-series is that it transports the viewer into a world they might be unfamiliar with, into the metaphorical shoes of the people who live in that world every day. The most striking character in “Cheer” had to be Monica. She’s a woman full of contrasts. She’s an incredibly warm mother figure, a hard ass, a God-fearing Christian, a fierce defender of the queer members of her team, a coach who demands constant vigilance and perfection. I walked away absolutely loving her, and in awe of what a (somewhat cultish) community she had created, but also feeling unsure about certain aspects of the cheer world. (But, honestly, Monica, come be my life coach.)
LB: I am, truly, honestly, undeniably and utterly terrified of Monica Aldama. I think she’s a lovely woman, and she’s absolutely a nurturer for these kids, but she’s also a relentless perfectionist. The elaborate and dangerous stunts she concocts in her head and then passes off to her squad to carry out IRL floor me (and literally floored most of the team members, who would do anything to please her). That’s where I’m torn on Monica. Is this routine worth all of the pain and injury these young athletes have to endure? I get that the competitive nature of the sport pushes a coach to incorporate and pull off the most high-flying tricks imaginable, but at what point is it all too much in terms of risk vs. reward? Matt, what’s your take on Monica’s high standards in terms of the dreaded pyramid?
MJ: Yep, I’m right there with you. Monica seems like an impressive mentor, and her dedication to providing refuge for these kids is cheer-worthy unto itself. But the nature of how hard she works them concerns me, as does the cult of personality that surrounds her. I know that could be said for any top-flight coach under the sun, so Monica doesn’t deserve all the blame. But she’s created a legion of disciples who are young and won’t have the opportunity to make a career out of their hobby. Are nailing complicated routines worth risking her star players’ bones? There are too many injuries! I’m not sure the show explored that conflict enough. Even when it underscores the intensity of Monica’s drive, “Cheer” focuses heavily on the uplift. That said, she’s an endlessly compelling figure, and she’s surrounded by lovelies. Jerry! Lexi! Gabi! Who was your favorite?
EG: I’m with you on all of that, Matt. But yes, the INCREDIBLE cheerleaders themselves. I just want the best for all of them, and would probably watch a spinoff about any one of the featured players. The kids who end up at Navarro College come from diverse backgrounds and travel from around the country to this small town in Texas to cheer. Jerry, a second-year stunter who lost his mother a few years before we meet him, is an absolute ray of light. He serves as “Cheer’s” beloved underdog, and you want to see him make it “on mat” (basically the A-team that competes at the championships in Daytona) based on spirit alone. My other fave was probably Lexi, who finds a sense of community at Navarro after years of alienation.
I also appreciated that the series dug a bit into class, and the way that money plays such a massive role in who get access to a sport like cheerleading. Similar to figure skating, success requires fancy costumes and styling, as well as access to elite gyms. Navarro levels the playing field in some ways once the kids are on the team, but like any social group, it can’t escape the dynamics of the world it exists in. We see kids like Morgan and La’Darius grapple with feelings of inadequacy and frustration, and La’Darius even addresses the inequities head-on during his conflict with Allie, another cheerleader who grew up with the privileges that money and involved parents bring.
Leigh, who were you most drawn to?
LB: All the performers you mentioned above were, of course, some of my favorites. (Lexi is a real-life Daenerys Targaryen whose mat skills are unparalleled.) But I was very taken by Gabi Butler’s story and the “celebrity” aspect of competitive youth cheerleading. Gabi is introduced at the start of Episode 2 as a well-known face in the world of cheer. As a young girl, she would post YouTube videos of herself working on her flexibility, and gained an impressive following. She now has nearly 900,000 followers on Instagram, all of whom keep up with every aspect of her personal life and cheer career. For her, Navarro was a safe space to live somewhat of a normal teenage life while still competing in the sport she loved. For Gabi’s parents, however, it seemed to be another way she could play the fame game as Navarro held the title of reigning NCA champions and had a good shot at winning again in 2019. I’m sure they want what’s best for her, but Gabi’s folks are the definition of stage parents and come off as extremely over-involved in her athletic life ― calling her to discuss everything from makeup and dieting to photo shoot opportunities. It’s ... A LOT to grapple with, I’m sure.
MJ: Yeah, the infrastructure of social-media fame that predated the series is fascinating. What I want to know is who on the Navarro squad is hooking up. You know there’s some hot and heavy action ― a lot of mounting, if you will ― going on behind the scenes; romance is bound to strike within any group that’s so tight-knit. But the players’ sexuality isn’t a major plot point. Granted, these are, like, 19-year-olds living in small-town Texas who are suddenly Netflix idols. It can’t be an easy subject for some of them to delve into, even if they feel protected by Monica and their peers. But you have to wonder who’s making sweet eyes at whom (and what melodrama ensues as a result), especially considering how many of the boys don’t fulfill archetypal masculine conventions.
The Bigger Picture
EG: It is a real diversion from what you would normally assume one focus of a closed-community, teen-focused show might explore! Give us the juicy stuff, Navarro! I would also have liked to see the series dive a little more deeply into the ways that cheerleading intersects with old-school ideas about gender and sexual identity. These themes were touched on in bits and pieces ― discussion of how cheerleading has become less traditionally feminized and increasingly athletic, Monica talking about “the look” of a cheerleader, three-hour grooming prep before competitions, casual allusions to disordered eating habits, La’Darius touching on how cheer gave him respite from being bullied by young men who were concerned that his expressions of masculinity didn’t fit their ideas about what being “manly” means ― but I would have liked to see these things explored with a more critical eye. Perhaps that’s just a task for another doc?
LB: Totally agree. As we began to learn more about a handful of the team members in those profile packages, I craved a deeper insight into their psyches and wanted to better understand the “grooming” that comes with being a competitive cheerleader. But I also knew this was only a six-part series, so creator Greg Whiteley, who also gave us “Last Chance U,” couldn’t possibly tackle every topic presented. His goal was to get us to Daytona Beach and the championships, even if there were more compelling aspects to explore with the cast of characters he discovered. (I would also watch a spinoff series on Morgan or Jerry or Lexi in a second, Emma!) Speaking of having to breeze by some pivotal areas of interest, who else wants to learn more about Varsity Spirit and its global control over every aspect of the cheerleading and dance industry?!
MJ: It wouldn’t be an institution if there weren’t a massive corporation lurking in the shadows, right? What’s interesting about the Varsity angle is that it shatters the illusion that Navarro’s program is some collective DIY underdog. Of course not even junior-college cheerleaders can escape the clutches of corporate control, which is further underscored by the fact that Monica seems to like when the girls resemble beauty-pageant contestants. Luckily, everyone’s humanity counterbalances all of that. The periodic profiles chronicling various cheerleaders’ backstories are some of what makes “Cheer” sing. Getting to see such dynamic experiences shows how varied America really is.
So, Should You Watch It?
EG: Not to be a cheer-tator or anything, but you should head to Netflix immediately to watch this, even if it means being aggressive (be, be aggressive!) for the remote.
LB: My spirit fingers are wiggling with delight for “Cheer.” You’ll squirm, you’ll cry, you’ll question why these kids want to be thrown into the air and caught by usually-prepared-sometimes-not-at-all spotters.
MJ: No question about it. I wasn’t sure the series would sustain my interest for six hour-long episodes, but it did that and much more. Even through its flaws, this is great television.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost.