[Warning: The following contains mild spoilers for Cheer Season 2. Read at your own risk!]
Cheer returned on Netflix for Season 2 in January, two years, a global pandemic, and a cheerleading-world shaking scandal after the first season made the Navarro College cheer team a household name. The new season opens with the news of Cheer Season 1 star Jerry Harris being arrested for child pornography and harassment charges and the team's immediate reactions. Then the show jumps back in time to January 2020, in the weeks immediately after the release of the first season, and focuses on how Navarro was coping with its newfound fame while also preparing for another trip to Daytona.
There were new cheerleaders to get acclimated to the team, including all-star Maddy Brum, as well as Season 2 expanding to also follow Navarro's rival Trinity Valley on its road to Daytona. Then COVID hit and canceled Nationals with less than a week to go before the teams were set to duke it out on stage. In Episode 5 of the new season, the first episode after the COVID-19 forced break in production, Cheer does a deep dive on the Harris scandal, sitting down with not only his Navarro teammates, but lawyers specializing in sexual abuse of children, the USA Today reporters who broke the story, and with the two teenage twin boys and their mother who first filed the allegations against Harris. It's a tense episode that doesn't flinch in the wake of the severity of Harris' alleged crimes, and it's the last time he's seen on camera in the show.
The back half of the season then rolls on to cover the 2020-21 cheer season, the drama caused by Coach Monica participating on Dancing with the Stars and leaving the Navarro team in the hands of a rookie assistant coach, another turbulent prep season for Nationals, and the fallout of trying to compete in the middle of a pandemic.
Needless to say, there is endless drama and a whole host of new complications tackled in the nine new episodes that cover two full seasons at Navarro and Trinity Valley. TV Guide spoke to Cheer executive producer and director Greg Whiteley about the challenges of completing Season 2 and expanding the scope of the series.
How did you decide how much Jerry Harris you were going to involve, especially in the first half of the season as you moved into Episode 5?
Greg Whiteley: I think when we were filming the first half of Season 2, the allegations against Jerry Harris had not been revealed yet. He had not been arrested, none of that had happened, none of that had come to light. He was just a normal member of the team. We felt like what we had to do for storytelling purposes — we had to let the audience know that we were aware of the allegations. That's why the cold open of Season 1 opens the way that it does. It's a way to indicate to the audience, "Listen, we know that these allegations have been made against Jerry Harris. We know that he's been arrested. We are going to get to that. But in the meantime, we're going to take you back in time to right after the launch of Season 1 and all of these people, Jerry included — maybe even especially — [are] becoming famous and enjoying a certain level of success that we chronicle in the show."
I don't know if that answers your question, but that that was our thinking... I didn't feel like you should scrub the season clean of Jerry Harris. I just don't think that's honest documentary filmmaking. He's a member of that team and we're going to allow him to be a member of the team. That's what's true. What's also true is that he was arrested for child pornography charges and sexual harassment charges. We needed to document that, but we needed to do it at its proper time in the proper chronology. So we offer up a cold open to the show that explains this is what's coming, we will get to it, just be patient. Then, in Episode 5, that's when we get to it.
So let's talk about Episode 5. Why was it so important for you to have his victims on the show and give them the space to tell their story? This show was part of what made Jerry such a powerful influence in their lives.
Whiteley: There's a certain argument to be made. Our job is to tell the story of the Navarro cheer team. After Jerry had been arrested and was no longer on the team, but in fact in jail, [Jerry's teammates] who were very close to him say for us to tell us what that was like, what it's like to be living through that experience. They faced a lot of online criticism, along with their coach. People were accusing them, "But if you were so close to Jerry, how could you not have known about these crimes that he committed?" Things like that. They were very helpful in telling us their side of the story.
But I think to tell the story of what happened with Jerry and these allegations, it was important to include the two of his accusers, two twin boys who are part of this story along with their mom. They very graciously agreed to sit with us on camera and answer very difficult questions — at least I would consider them difficult, having to relive certain situations and scenarios. These twins [also] faced a level of scrutiny and criticism online. Jerry Harris was a very popular figure in the cheer community before we had ever met him. When his story was documented in Season 1, he became a full-blown celebrity. So for these twins to come forward with these allegations, they've faced a ton of initial criticism from people in the cheer community who love Jerry. For them to sit for us and explain that, it was helpful and illuminating for people that are trying to understand the story surrounding Jerry Harris, which we felt obligated to tell.
What was the most difficult part of covering this part of the story? It's an ongoing case and Jerry has not gone to trial yet.
Whiteley: That's right. The biggest difficult was that Jerry's legal team was just not interested in participating, either themselves or allowing Jerry to speak with us. So we have the accusers telling their side of the story and I think courageously sitting in front of a camera and answering those questions. As much as we tried, Jerry Harris, or the people who speak in defense of Jerry Harris, just did not take that opportunity. I think that was one of the more difficult parts of telling this story. We were just not able to get it.
In a larger context about this season, one of the big themes of Season 2 is the effect that Season 1 had on the Navarro team, and even the cheerleaders tangentially around them. Can you talk about what it was like making a documentary that was in large part about the effects of your documentary?
Whiteley: I've been asked this before. The muscles are exactly the same. I think our job is to show up at a place and document what's going on and try to do it as authentically as we can. It would have been impossible to authentically document the story of the Navarro cheer team without accounting for their newfound fame. It was something that was pervasive. If you can imagine how intense a cheer schedule is as [the team] is ramping up and heading towards Daytona. It's sometimes two or three practices a day, and then you're adding in all these press obligations that are coming your way, phone calls from agents, Buick commercials. I think just telling the story of the Navarro cheer team, which is something we had already done, so exercising those same muscles. You're having to account for the harried part of their lives. Their lives had become fundamentally different because of the fame, and in order to tell their story we just had to film that.
Did it make filming more difficult now that you not only had to work around school schedules but also Buick commercials?
Whiteley: Not for us. It was hard on them, for sure. I'm sure they felt torn and it's probably something you should bring up with them, but I felt like we were witnessing individuals being pulled in many different directions.
Varsity, the cheerleading organization, was almost an adversary in Season 1 and wouldn't let you film at Nationals. That clearly changed in Season 2 and you had so much footage. How and when did that relationship change to allow the level of access you had in Season 2?
Whiteley: They are the governing body that controls the Daytona competition. We were a filmmaking crew asking for permission to come and film there, and they didn't know who we were. They control all the rights and they had every right in the world to deny us access. Of course, I was disappointed in Season 1 when weren't allowed to film, but because of modern technology we were able to get by. In Season 2... it was right after Season 1 came out and they saw the show, they were the ones that reached out to us and wanted to figure out if there was a way that we could safely be allowed to film. They've got a difficult job. They've got hundreds of other cheer teams there, some of which may have no interest in being filmed at all. They've got to take that into account. The parameters that they set up for us were strictly to protect the identity of the other teams or other teams that may not have wanted to be filmed. As soon as we could assure them that we could do this in a way that focused on the two teams that we were interested in, they were very supportive and I'm incredibly grateful to them for allowing us to do that.
I think the most important addition to Season 2 is Trinity Valley. When did you decide that you wanted a second team and why was it Trinity Valley?
Whiteley: They are mentioned in Season 1. We don't spend a lot of time with them. Our primary focus was the Navarro cheer team, but in Season 2, they're just 30 miles down the road so it was kind of an obvious choice. If they were willing to spend a little more time with us, because of the rivalry, because they happen to be two of the top cheerleading teams in the history of college cheerleading — seemed like a pretty obvious choice.
I was fascinated by Team Weenie on the Trinity Valley team most of all, and their hesitance to perform, especially in relation to it making them look not tough. In Season 1, you tackled the homophobia in Texas around the Navarro boy performers head-on and had Monica talk about it, so I'm interested in how you navigated that dynamic on the Trinity Valley team and how you decided to frame it in the way that you did in Season 2.
Whiteley: I'm not so sure that we found evidence that it was anti-gay. It might be there. I'm trying to think if I saw anybody express anything that was — Trinity Valley is led by their coach, Vontae, who grew up playing football and basketball. It was when he was on the football team and one of his coaches' wives, who was the coach of the cheerleading team, saw Vontae do a flip [and] she began desperately trying to recruit him to the cheerleading team. He didn't want to be a cheerleader. I think a lot of people when they think of cheerleading, think of this activity that is relegated to the sideline sport and it's predominantly made up of women. Being a young man, I think there's probably a lot of young men who would otherwise love to be a cheerleader, but going back 10, 15, or 20 years ago, maybe would be intimidated by making that choice because it was mostly seen as a girl sport.
You're so desperate at that age to try and prove you're a man, I guess. That has really changed, but what I think we wanted to explore in Season 2 is this notion of if you're a world-class tumbler if you can run down the mat and flip your body in the air two or three times with four or five twists, well, that's cool. Nobody is going to take issue with who you are as a "man," if you can do that. But in cheerleading, there's a performance element that incorporates dance, and it's not enough to just perform those flips. You do it with a smile. You do it with a certain panache, at least if you want to score high in a competition. If you're a young man that's kind of reserved and shy, like a couple of these young men at Trinity Valley, and you're used to just tumbling... that was an interesting dynamic. That was kind of an interesting story to tell. How do you figure out, if you're a young man in that situation, how to perform. I think we documented a couple of guys wrestling with that and I found it interesting.
There were a lot fewer injuries in Season 2, and that was a big focal point in Season 1. Where there legitimately no serious injuries during the two seasons covered in these episodes or was there just not room to cover those like you did in Season 1?
Whiteley: There were [fewer] injuries. Even Monica said in Season 1, while cheerleading is a sport that does have a lot of injuries, the year that we were filming them, during that period of time they were ramping up for Daytona, it was an unusual number for them. I think it may have just been a combination. There's going to be injuries every single year. There were just less of them in Season 2 than there was in Season 1.
Cheer Season 2 is now streaming on Netflix.