Morgan Simianer and Shannon Woolsey, members of the Navarro College cheerleading team, were on a trip recently when a woman approached them with a message: “If Jerry needs a kidney, I’ll happily give him one.”
The Jerry in question is teammate Jerry Harris, one of the standout athletes featured in the Netflix documentary series ‘Cheer.’
“Someone that doesn’t even know me but knows my story has so much love for me,” Harris said, sharing the story with disbelief. “It makes me feel really special.”
While fans offering their vital organs remain rare, many viewers have responded to ‘Cheer’ — and especially its subjects — with similar fervour since it premiered in January. The six-part series, directed by Greg Whiteley, follows the elite cheerleaders at Navarro, a junior college in the small town of Corsicana, Texas, in the intense months leading up to the national championships.
The team is led by Monica Aldama, a Sheryl Crow lookalike with a perfect blowout, an impressive boot collection and an MBA from the University of Texas. Demanding and nurturing in equal measure, she has the ability to inspire fierce loyalty and selfless devotion among her athletes, most of whom defy the perky-cheerleader stereotype.
Netflix declined to reveal ratings information about ‘Cheer,’ but anecdotal evidence suggests the series has broken out with an audience well beyond the cheerleading community. Its high drama — only half the 40-member team will “make mat,” or be selected for the starting squad, and the entire season comes down to a two-minute, 15-second performance — has made it one of the most talked-about new shows of 2020, turning viewers who were previously indifferent to the sport into passionate armchair experts, conversant in terms like “top girl,” “hit zero” and “full out.”
Its young subjects have become in-demand talk-show guests and overnight influencers. And in what may be the surest sign of its cultural resonance, ‘Cheer’ was spoofed in a recent episode of ‘Saturday Night Live.’
“I think we all have been really shocked,” Aldama said via telephone from Netflix’s LA offices the day after an appearance on ‘Ellen.’ The coach was joined by one of her star athletes, Lexi Brumback. “We knew that the people in the cheer industry would watch it. But we really had no idea that so many people would not just watch it, but multiple times.”
“Life has been wild lately,” added Brumback, a platinum-haired raver with a space cadet vibe and freakish tumbling skills. She’s been excited by the response from celebrities, like ‘Jersey Shore’ star Snooki. “I can’t believe that!”
A high school dropout with a history of acting out violently, she credits cheerleading — and Aldama — with keeping her out of trouble. “I’ve learned a lot of useful tools while being here,” she said.
Brumback, 20, is one of five athletes at the centre of ‘Cheer.’ Their poignant personal stories of overcoming poverty, sexual abuse, parental neglect and tragic loss lend the series a surprising emotional wallop.
Harris is a bighearted underdog so committed to cheerleading he performed the day after his mother died of lung cancer. La’Darius Marshall is a gifted but mercurial athlete whose brothers used to beat him for being gay. Wide-eyed and eager to please, Simianer was effectively abandoned by her parents as a teen and struggles with feelings of inadequacy. Gabi Butler, a genuine “cheer-lebrity” who arrives at Navarro with endorsement deals and a huge social media following, has to balance practice with late-night photo shoots and calls from her overbearing parents.
“The secret to the series are these kids and how interesting they are,” said Whiteley, who documented the struggles of college football players in the series ‘Last Chance U.’ He calls the Navarro cheerleaders “the toughest athletes I’ve ever filmed.”
‘Cheer’ has also brought attention to what many think of as a sparkly sideline attraction, not a physically and mentally punishing sport that is the leading cause of catastrophic injury for young female athletes. (One Navarro cheerleader reveals she’s had five concussions. “That’s usually what happens to get it perfect,” she says with a shrug.)
And it hints at the extreme measures these athletes undergo to meet the physical ideal for the sport — especially the women, who are seen anxiously weighing themselves and teasing their hair to ridiculous heights.
The series has become a phenomenon because it “finally showed the true, authentic meaning of what cheerleading is,” said Marshall. “There’s a lot more than looking pretty under the Friday night lights.”
Don't miss it!
'Cheer' is now streaming on Netflix. Watch the trailer below: