There’s a fine line between evolution and reinvention. For good measure, “Cheer” Season 2 and the teams it chronicles do plenty of both. Some is inherent to the competition itself. In a field like competitive cheerleading, where a blend of skill and surprise can be the decimal point difference between spots on a podium, there’s a constant push to outdo the previous year. For the production team following a tumultuous two-year stretch in the lives and careers of these rosters, there’s a slightly different expectation.
Having built an unexpected runaway Netflix sensation, there’s undoubtedly a heavy demand for the series to fulfill the same role, hitting the same emotional beats. For any number of reasons, a simple repeat of the show’s inaugural season tracking northeast Texas’ Navarro College was never going to be an option. Disturbing allegations against one of the team’s breakout stars, the inherent turnover of personnel on and off the mat, and a once-in-a-century biological curveball quickly dispelled any notion that “Cheer” Season 2 would map neatly onto its predecessor.
The show doesn’t pretend those questions are non-existent, beginning with a small glimpse at the April 2021 NCAA College Nationals in Daytona, Florida before whirring back over a year in the team’s timeline. There’s talk of the arrest of team member Jerry Harris before rewinding to January 2020, eight months before. To underline another year-over-year difference, “Cheer” transforms its opening credits sequence from team members indoors dressed in black to a beachside run-through of a routine with all participants dressed in white.
If none of those early choices (or an opening montage of the main on-screen Navarro crew enjoying their overnight turn in the spotlight) were enough to single out “Cheer” Season 2 as its own entity, these new episodes also turn toward Navarro’s crosstown rivals. The perpetual other team on the Daytona stage, both in archival footage and in last season’s climactic showdown, this year goes inside Trinity Valley Community College to get to know more than just the uniform. The TVCC squad is something of a foil, led by head coach Vontae Johnson and made up of a team that, by their own admission, excels more in precision than performance.
Regardless of the stylistic or personnel makeup of either school (as the season goes on, you notice each team’s reluctance to address their rivals by name), the opening episodes of Season 2 are hurdling to an inevitable midpoint. (There’s a looming sadness right around the corner in any documentary project filming in the early months of 2020, one that was also present in last year’s “Last Chance U: Basketball.”) With hindsight, “Cheer” Season 2 becomes less focused with setting two programs in diametric opposition and instead zeroes in on the common struggles between each team. Last season’s intros to the terminology and month-by-month rhythm of a cheerleading season allow “Cheer” to use a pre-established foundation and tweak what it places on top.
Into that greater emotional and logistical balancing act comes the invisible third major element: the show itself. “Cheer” doesn’t pretend that the release of Season 1 kept some of these Navarro figures from becoming household names. The show addresses some lingering sentiments about who was featured, along with the ways that returning main team members and coaches are bringing their newfound second and third careers back to the gym in Corsicana. Many on the “Cheer” production team, including directors Greg Whiteley and Chelsea Yarnell, worked on seasons of “Last Chance U” that dealt with a similar dynamic of athletes returning with the added pressures of increased visibility. Add in the unprecedented considerations of Season 2 spanning both a pre- and a mid-pandemic cheer calendar and there’s even more time for this web of interpersonal relationships to be in flux before the cameras stop rolling.
There’s no simple or correct way for “Cheer” to handle Harris’ involvement in the 2019-20 Navarro squad. Rather than cutting around him in the first half of Season 2 or presenting him as a foreboding figure, the show chooses to emphasize other players instead. Jerry is a presence seen and heard in practice, and certainly in the occasional rundowns of Navarro stunters and flyers on talk shows spanning not just both coasts but other continents. When the Season 2 timeline reaches the summer and early fall of 2020, the show devotes an entire episode to the accusations against Harris, complete with interviews and accounts that include specifics of his alleged actions. It gives those affected by his actions a platform without reducing them to victims, and it does so in a way that doesn’t ignore a greater discussion of systemic issues in cheerleading and collegiate sports at large.
Once the show returns to Navarro and TVCC for 2020-21, there are other difficult developments to contend with in the flow of the next cheer year. In tackling what’s effectively Season 2B, “Cheer” maintains its technical and structural strengths, introducing a new round of rookies into its inner circle. There are times later in the season when the demands of two teams and the psychological weight of the greater Navarro family become daunting for one show to hold. But on the whole, “Cheer” finds a tonal balance between the spectrum of success on the mat and the calmer, everyday life in dorms and houses once everyone goes home for the night. In “Last Chance U” and “Cheer,” each show has found a carefully calibrated way to inhabit an athlete’s mindset where winning and community can both be the paramount reward.
That comes across in the way that “Cheer” threads its thematic, episode-by-episode ideas, and also in the craft of capturing these competitors’ technique. The classic slow-motion tracking shot of a tumbler making their way across the mat isn’t just glossy, glamorous flair. It’s a way to appreciate the skill and endurance required to execute a single skill and then incorporate it into a complex, interwoven artistic spectacle. Seeing the same routine — regardless of whether it’s shown in full from a high angle or recut to another thrilling needle drop — never gets repetitive. When shown as many times as “Cheer” can allow, it makes for an instructive, dramatic build to the final championship-level test.
This season, “Cheer” actually uses direct footage from Daytona, rather than piecing together footage of the last routines from stray iPhone angles. In an extended, two-part finale, “Cheer” once again provides a window into the elation that makes an entire season of toil worth it and the heartbreaking byproduct of a sport that has only room for one title each calendar year. Now aware of its influence and with the added responsibility that comes with it, “Cheer” delivers a fascinating command performance, with all the attention and empathy that the stories at its center demand.
“Cheer” Season 2 is now available to stream on Netflix.