It may only be the second week of 2020, but we feel confident in saying we've already gotten to witness the first truly great show of the year: Cheer, a Netflix docuseries about a junior college cheerleading team. The six-episode series had little hype or promotion leading into its premiere on Jan. 8, but the powerful stories of members of the Navarro College cheer program in Corsicana, Texas, captured viewers' hearts and opened their eyes to the toll, trauma, and dedication lurking behind the sport's glossy façade. As word of the show's impeccable storytelling and compelling narrative spread, Cheer grew over the weekend into a sleeper hit, and it's likely the series' rise is only just starting. Below, we outline six reasons why Cheer is the first must-see show of 2020 — and why you should clear your schedule ASAP for a viewing party.
1. It teaches you how brutal and under-appreciated cheerleading is. The idea that cheerleading isn't given enough respect as a sport isn't unheard of, but nothing has ever quite demonstrated just how unfair cheerleading's reputation is quite like Cheer. In these six episodes, the filmmakers are able to capture the strength, endurance, fearlessness, and physicality necessary to be a top college cheerleader, giving viewers a visceral appreciation for the toll this sport takes on these athletes' bodies. Injuries plague the Navarro team throughout the season as they prepare to compete at the NCA Collegiate Cheer Championships in Daytona Beach, Florida, where they are set to defend their title as the top team in the country. And while some students find their dreams of hitting the mat at Daytona taken away from them due to devastating injuries during practice, others are forced to power through the pain for themselves, for their teammates, and for their coach, Monica Aldama.
2. It will make you want a Monica in your life. The driving force behind Navarro's previous 13 wins at the NCA Championships is Monica Aldama, who coaches her team with a blend of calculated strategy geared toward maximizing points, strict rules about how the team should behave on and off the mat, and unconditional love and support of these young adults, whom she affectionately refers to as "her kids." While Monica doesn't hesitate to replace someone on the mat if they don't live up to her standards, the cheerleaders know this isn't because Monica is cutthroat but because she wants to do right by the entire team. Monica's version of tough love is appreciated by the students, who understand how hard she works to teach them the skills they need to not only thrive on the mat but out in the world once their two years at Navarro are finished. Many of the kids on Navarro's team came from homes that lacked structure or support, and Monica is aware of her role as both a coach and a mother figure, demonstrating patience and understanding whenever an issue arises with one of her kids and going to great lengths to ensure a bright future for them, even if she has to cut them from the team.
3. You really feel as though you get to know these kids. There are approximately 40 cheerleaders on the Navarro team, but Cheer narrows its focus by highlighting five of them: La'Darius Marshall, Jerry Harris, Morgan Simianer, Lexi Brumback, and Gabi Butler, who was already famous in the cheerleading world prior to this show. Over the course of the six episodes, Cheer reveals the complexities of each of these cheerleaders, examining what has propelled them to this point and why they are seemingly willing to risk their physical and mental wellbeing for a sport they know they'll have no future in beyond college. When Morgan tells the camera at one point that she would take a bullet for Monica, it's clear that she isn't exaggerating, nor is she the only team member who feels this way. The storytelling is incredibly layered, and every episode offers new insights into the often contradictory motivations and perspectives of these young adults who push themselves (and are pushed by Monica) often to their breaking point and beyond. Cheer's greatest success lies in how it examines the complicated intersection of what drives these young adults to give so much to this sport and the question of whether their sacrifices will ultimately be worth it, all while portraying those involved with nuance, kindness, and understanding.
4. It's more dramatic and unpredictable than some scripted dramas. One of the thrilling things about a docuseries is that there are no guarantees it will follow any familiar narrative pattern. Life isn't bound to the same karmic storytelling you often find in scripted shows, where even if the hero loses they learn something along the way about family or happiness or whatever message the writer is hoping to convey. Life is unpredictable, and often unbelievable, in a way that fictional stories rarely can capture, and nothing hammers home this point more than the injuries and obstacles that the cheerleaders are faced with in this show. They come quickly and haphazardly throughout the six episodes, and watching Monica and the team adapt and keep moving forward — all while still coping with various physical and emotional traumas — is a harrowing experience. The series will entertain, yes, but it's also crafted in a way that makes it impossible for viewers to forget that the struggles they're seeing on screen are very real, and so are the people involved.
5. Jerry. Just Jerry. All of the kids featured in Cheer are endearing and impossible not to root for, but there's no denying that Jerry often acts as the heart of the series. An undeniable force for positivity, Jerry had to overcome so much on his journey to Navarro, including being homeless and suffering the death of his mother. Throughout all this, Jerry never stopped cheering, and the sport became both a refuge for him and a way to honor his mother's desire that he "bring a positive attitude to everything" he does. Even when Jerry is faced with obstacles in Cheer, his optimistic and supportive attitude never wavers, and he admits that this is driven in part by his knowledge that his teammates rely on him to bring "brightness to their day." But throughout the season, viewers also get to see Jerry take baby steps in learning to advocate for himself and navigate complicated friendships that sometimes require telling someone what they don't want to hear. It's hard not to be inspired by Jerry — and to either wish you had someone like him in your life or wish you could be a little more like him yourself.
6. The finale will blow you away. Much like the Navarro cheerleaders, the filmmakers are also faced with some unexpected obstacles when they are denied access to the NCA Collegiate Cheer Championships that the entire season was building toward. In response, they adapt and cover the events by using cell phone footage from attendees, including several of the cheerleaders, adding intimacy and power to an already moving episode that is likely to leave you in tears. And by continuing to follow some of the students after the Championships, Cheer delivers one final reminder that these aren't just characters in a story but people whose lives will continue on and will have to evolve long after the cameras stop rolling.
Cheer is available to stream on Netflix.
(Disclosure: TV Guide is owned by CBS Interactive, a division of ViacomCBS.)