[This post originally appeared as part of Recommendation Machine, IndieWire’s daily TV picks feature.]
Right now, there’s a great season of TV on Netflix from a few years ago, revolving around the complex lives of members and coaches of a cheerleading squad, one that had its fandom demanding a Season 2. Yes, there’s that documentary series currently racing up the platform’s Top 10, but all those descriptors also apply to “Dare Me.”
Adapted from her novel of the same name by co-showrunner Megan Abbott, alongside Gina Fattore, the one-season drama centered on a pair of Midwestern high school cheerleaders bound together by their past and some fateful decisions far away from the mat. Addy (Herizen Guardiola) and Beth (Marlo Kelly) are linked in the way that so many other high school friends eventually become. Their relationship is often contentious and co-dependent, eventually put through an unforeseen series of tests with the arrival of Colette (Willa Fitzgerald), the new cheer coach at Sutton Groove High School.
There’s a tension in “Dare Me” that starts at the outset, so that even as the setting sun in the pilot seems to signal a “Friday Night Lights”-style look at a school year unfolding, those expectations get upended pretty quickly. Some quick revelations about Coach send Addy into a small crisis of conflicted allegiances and give the savvy Beth a particular lever of control.
The cheer routines have a different feel than their nonfiction college-level counterparts, but “Dare Me” gets to capitalize as much as it can on getting the camera even closer to the faces of Addy, Beth, and her teammates. It’s an added tool the show uses with real skill, turning these performances into extra chances to reveal more and more about the delicate relationships between the people executing them. Addy, Beth, and Coach make up the show’s core psychological trio, but plenty of other Sutton Grove squad members play key roles in understanding where this drama heads over the course of the season.
If there’s one element that makes “Dare Me” an ideal companion piece to “Cheer” (beyond the obvious connections), it’s the way that both shows present the idea of pressure. Already sky-high with the demands of the sport, “Dare Me” gradually unspools details about each person’s home life and what they each might be using cheer to validate or escape from. The physical demands eventually give way to a series of traumas that, in their own tragic way, end up tying each side of this dramatic triangle closer together.
The episode that maybe best illustrates all of the “Dare Me” strengths comes at the halfway point of the season, where the audience sees one shocking moment through the eyes of Addy, Coach, and Beth. One by one, you see the seeds of each new development meticulously planted with each new perspective. It even takes the chance to show the strange expectations of school bureaucracy, highlight some of the simmering mistrust in the community, and follow one particular sisterly rivalry to a surprising endpoint. Paired with a dreamy, surreal opening that hints at the even more consequential bloodshed to come, it’s a twisty hour of TV that delivers each detail with confidence.
“Dare Me” ended up hitting a number of TV industry roadblocks — rough timing for its premiere date was the first step before eventually becoming a casualty of changing production protocols and different programming aims for USA. Although it met an untimely end before getting a chance to fulfill its Season 2 plans, the episodes that exist make up a captivating story, told with a fresh stylistic boldness that’s still worth celebrating. The three performances at the center are all somehow foils for each other, each delivered in a way that makes it even more of a shame that there wasn’t an opportunity to keep going. If this week brings you to Netflix for some quality cheer drama, know that it comes in many forms.