There’s a moment in the second episode of Netflix’s “Cheer” where viewers learn more about a boy named Jerry Harris, described by his teammates on the Navarro College cheer team as an ever-positive spirit and friend to many.
It’s in this episode that we learn that Jerry’s inherent joy comes despite a tragic background, marked by poverty and the loss of his mother to cancer when he was a young boy. Taken in by the family of a teammate and nurtured by the love of his cheer families over the years, Jerry rose from his heartbreak to become the heart of every team he’s been a part of since, including this Corsicana, Texas-based one. Jerry is loved. And you will love Jerry, too.
“Cheer” is filled with stories like this – kids who find homes and families in a team bound by the singular mission to come out on top at the national championship. It’s “Friday Night Lights” meets MTV’s “True Life” multiplied by Cirque du Soleil as they push their bodies and hearts to the limit while looked after sternly but lovingly by coach Monica Aldama. This six-episode docuseries will make you cry, smile, grimace and, yes, cheer.
The show has found celebrity fans in everyone from Reese Witherspoon to football player J.J. Watt. This past week they appeared on Ellen DeGeneres’s daytime show and nailed a complicated routine similar to that painstakingly practiced in their series.
Truth be told, it was not the ideal time for the team to pack up and make a trip to Los Angeles. While the Netflix series is centered on the 2019 competition, in real-life, they are hard at work preparing for this year’s national championship in April. But Aldama says, “when the ‘Ellen’ show calls and says they want you to come on, you just really make time for that to happen.”
“We had no idea that it was going to be this successful,” she tells CNN Entertainment. “So we’re just, you know, trying to survive right now.”
Keeping their “head above water” has proved tough, but her “kids,” as she affectionately calls her team members, were experts in multitasking even before their faces were splattered across the Netflix browsing page, she says.
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I sheepishly admit to her that I purchased a Cameo from La’Darius Marshall for a friend who needed a professional-level pep talk and apologize for the additional distraction. (Cameos are personalized shout-outs by public figures that can be purchased by anyone for various fees.)
“Even without this, they’re always so busy and our schedule is always pretty tight that they have to keep themselves organized,” she says. “I mean, we had people yesterday taking some online tests when we were waiting in the green room for Ellen.”
The series made clear that if the students for any reason didn’t keep up, Aldama would not only learn about it, but do something about it. And you didn’t want that.
Her tough love, no-nonsense personality is a through line of the show. As a viewer, you come to sort of fear her disapproving gaze and that displeased tap from her heeled boot, but also melt at the mention of her unwavering support for her cheerleaders, be it their needs on the mat or off of it.
In one scene, Aldama helps a team member navigate a situation where explicit photos – taken when the student was underage, to make things worse – were released online. In another, she speaks about her views – conservative, religious, “old-school with values” – but declares with passion a promise to defend her kids at every turn.
“I get angry. I will debate you up one side and down the other if you talk about my boys,” she says in the show, referring to some gay members of her team. “I don’t understand how people can be so cruel about someone they don’t even know.”
She adds: “Those are my kids. I’ll fight tooth and nail for them.”
She makes me tear up again when I bring this moment up.
“I’ve seen them cry, I’ve heard their stories, I know their pain and they are like my own kids, so my heart breaks for them sometimes,” she says. “And I want to just put my arms around them and protect them from ever feeling like they are less than anything. I want them to know that they are loved for exactly who they are and that they should love themselves, you know?”
The praise hasn’t been completely unanimous. There has been some criticism of how injuries were handled during the course of the show, something Aldama found “shocking” because “at the end of the day, I’m here to teach them life lessons and to be a good role model for them, and I would never ever put someone’s health at risk for a championship,” she says.
“You’re watching six hours of four months of work, so really you don’t get to see the other side of it – the caution that we take when we’re actually preparing and learning a routine,” she says. “I knew that when we signed up for this there was gonna be negative something because that’s just life.”
In all, her leadership style has a struck a chord. Messages from other coaches have poured in, she says, many saying that the show helped them see they should “be more empathetic with some of their kids and what they’re going through.”
Other messages have come from people outside the cheer world, too, telling her that the show made them want to interact with their employees differently.
“I was really touched because I had no idea when we made this docuseries that it would be so impactful,” she says.
It has. And yet there is no word on whether “Cheer” will have a second season. Cameras are not currently rolling, Aldama says.
The work, however, continues.
Before Christmas break, she says, the team was in a good spot and feeling prepared. After returning to school, now in the afterglow of Netflix success, stress is running higher than it was even while filming the show.
“I think that we’re okay right now and, you know, if we needed to add a few extra practices in to catch up on anything, then we’ll definitely do that,” she says.
In “Cheer,” the kids and staff often emphasize a phrase that declares everyone must “earn” their “spot on the mat,” a reference to the surface on which the cheer team performs. In showcasing young people who exemplify a spirit of grit and determination, the series has earned a spot atop a list of must-watch programming in age of too much TV.
That is, indeed, something to cheer about.