It’s easy to say that, in a sports documentary series like “Cheer,” winning doesn’t matter as much. Regardless of the outcome of a particular season, it’s about getting to know the people participating in that pursuit along the way. But after six seasons involved with making different versions of the Netflix doc series “Last Chance U,” director Greg Whiteley soon discovered that the world of cheerleading made for even more intense pressure on how the team at Navarro College finished any given spring.
It’s something that he was especially aware of going into the show’s Season 2.
“We hit upon a formula in ‘Last Chance U’ that was helpful. The season could go into the tank from the team standpoint, but you still had individual championships. If they were to go on to get a D1 scholarship, that was a very pleasing arc to demonstrate. But in ‘Cheer’ you don’t have that,” Whiteley said. “Navarro, for most people, it’s their end-all, be-all. Once they’re there, they want to win that championship. What I found, though, is it just adds to the stakes. It just makes that ending even that much more interesting.”
“Cheer” Season 2 brought its own extra sense of added expectations. Not only did the public perception of the team and staff at Navarro grow after the runaway attention paid to the first round of episodes in early 2020, there was now an established foundation for how these stories were told and who was under the microscope. Balancing the “where are they now” element of the previous season with staying true to the unfolding events of the 2019-2020 school year became something that the production team had to be cognizant of from the outset.
“It’s tricky, because if you just completely ignore what you think the audience is going to want, I think you’re just going to be like one of those really bad jam bands in the ’90s that would just go and ignore all their hits and everybody leaves the concert unsatisfied,” Whiteley said. “At the same time, you think you want more Morgan or Lexi or whoever, the truth is, we’ve told their stories. We spent a lot of time telling what happened to them to make them want to choose cheer and have that be an intense interest of theirs. It doesn’t mean that there isn’t more to their story to tell. But it just becomes harder.”
Season 2 acknowledges early on that some returning and graduating members of the greater Navarro family ascended to a “share the stage with Oprah” level of attention. But even that introduction comes after also addressing the allegations against former team member Jerry Harris. A prominent featured Navarro stunter in Season 1, Harris was the subject of an FBI investigation and was eventually arrested on child pornography charges.
“I spent some time puzzling over just what percentage of our audience will know the story. We shot for almost an entire season before those allegations even came out. And so he’s a member of that team. Of course, he shows up in the footage,” Whiteley said. “And I just kept thinking that the audience, if they know the story, it’s going to be so weird. And they’re going to be asking the filmmakers, ‘What happened? Are they going to acknowledge this? Are they just going to pretend it didn’t?’ And so, the solution ended up being, ‘Let’s address it right up front. We know that this happened. This is coming. We’re going to explain it later.'”
Following a chronological approach to Season 2, “Cheer” devotes a majority of Episode 5 to documenting Harris’ pattern of alleged behavior. Harris and his legal team declined to participate, but the episode does include interviews with USA Today reporters Marisa Kwiatkowski and Tricia L. Nadolny, who helped bring the story to public awareness in September 2020. Twin brothers who came forward in Kwiatkowski and Nadolny’s reporting, along with their mother, also gave on-camera interviews for “Cheer,” detailing their personal experiences with Harris.
“I felt like our job as a group of documentarians trying to cover this very delicate issue was to do what we’re always trying to do, which is tell the truth. Let’s hear everybody out. And then let’s let the audience decide for themselves what’s true and what’s not true or what’s right and what’s wrong. The people who have a voice and have a say in this particular story, let’s give them that voice and and let it bear out,” Whiteley said.
Figuring out how to present Harris’ involvement with the team meant sticking to the original goals that the series has been pursuing across both its seasons.
“The audience should always be aware that we’re giving you a snapshot of these people. It would be impossible to know everything about someone during the four months that we are allowed to film them. It’s not a reasonable expectation. And I think it’s important for the audience to know, I am not giving you the biblical truth of these people. This is our experience with them during a very finite period of time in their lives. And so it’s fallible. We’re not going to get to everything. The only thing that we can do is when we learn something new, assuming it’s relevant, we show it. Even if it’s uncomfortable, even if it’s difficult. I think that’s the best you can do as a journalist or as a documentarian.”
After the 2020 NCA College Nationals were canceled, “Cheer” added another school year’s worth of stories to a Season 2 already supersized by following not just Navarro, but crosstown rival Trinity Valley Community College (TVCC). The final four episodes gather the run-up to last year’s events at Daytona, but even though the footage may have been captured in the same style, there was a marked difference in the day-to-day function of the production crew.
“Even when we’re on just one campus, we’re in many locations on that one campus and frequently having to divide. Now we’re separated by 30 or 40 miles, what was tough was we couldn’t meet in the same ways that we were used to meeting. We kept those crews separate for COVID purposes and to keep those respective teams safe,” Whiteley said. “What I missed was having everybody come together at night in the hotel lobby or a conference room and saying, ‘Okay, what did you see today? What are some stories?’ That had to be tracked via zoom, which still worked and was still effective. But I missed having everybody together. And I know that the crew felt that way, too. You started to feel siloed in ways that I think were kind of strangely helpful in some ways. But in general, it wasn’t as fun for the crew. It didn’t feel quite as collaborative as it has in years past.”
That separated approach carried all the way through to Daytona, where separate crews tracked the Navarro and TVCC squads as they waited for the final results. For a show that tracked both teams over two separate years of heartbreak, confusion, and preparation, how did “Cheer” pick whose reaction to show first: the dawning realizations of the champs or the runners-up? Whether coincidence or not, that climactic moment was presented largely how Whiteley described it to his inner circle right after it happened.
“I’ve got a really talented story team that’s back in LA. They’re editing as we’re going. And I remember being on the phone with a couple of them and just recounting what had happened. I told my wife and my daughter, ‘Hey, this is how this all went down.’ And I had reversed it. Navarro getting the news and then TVCC getting the news. Daniel McDonald, who was the supervising editor of that last episode, played an integral role, and it was a lot of discussion between me, Adam Leibowitz, and Daniel about how that sequence should go,” Whiteley said. “And it was tough. We did go back and forth. I felt like if we had done our job right, that you felt empathy for both teams. You are going to be thrilled for whoever won and you’re going to be heartbroken for whoever lost. Hopefully after eight and a half episodes, we have told individual stories in such a way that you really care about these people as people and you want what they want.”
“Cheer” Season 2 is now available to stream on Netflix.