A Netflix crew found its way to tiny Corsicana, Texas for a reality show about cheerleading, and less than a week in, America is flipping out.
Cheer, a six-episode series about Navarro College Cheer Team’s 2019 quest to win its 14th national championship, started streaming January 8. Six days later, it's earned a 100 percent rating from critics and 93 percent from audience members on Rotten Tomatoes.
Even the vaunted Washington Post has called it “The documentary that hard-working cheerleaders have long deserved,” with acclaimed TV writer Hank Steuver admitting that it "quickly and effortlessly becomes all-consuming for the viewer."
Viewers are getting hooked one episode in. And anyone who's ever been a DFW-area cheerleader will get hooked 10 minutes in.
Dallas, as the show reminds, was the birthplace of modern cheerleading. Southern Methodist University cheerleader Lawrence Herkimer famously invented the “Herkie” jump in the 1940s, then went on to found the National Cheerleaders Association, or NCA. Dallas-Fort Worth is home to many competitive cheer gyms, and the owner of one is interviewed throughout the show.
But somehow, just 80 miles from Fort Worth, Navarro College’s cheerleading legacy is a bigger secret than the Collin Street Bakery fruitcake recipe (which also calls Corsicana home). Not even residents of the town, population 24,000, know about it, the first episode reveals.
The two-year college of 9,000 is attracting some of the most elite cheerleaders from around the country to cheer in one of the best programs in the world under one of the best coaches in the world, Monica Aldama.
“The kids,” as she calls them, are fearless flyers, powerful tumblers, and superb stunters. She pushes them to the highest levels using her motto, “You keep going until you get it right, and then you keep going until you can't get it wrong."
Most of Cheer (directed by Greg Whiteley of Last Chance U) is spent in the gym with the team and the coaches, choreographers, and athletic trainers — someone’s always there to render aid when a stunt falls (50 push-ups for everyone if a girl hits the ground!).
Like every great sports documentary, Cheer details the highs and lows along the team’s journey: who gets “on mat” (makes the competition team)?; who’ll replace injured stunters in the routine?; can they finally achieve pyramid perfection before the championships in Daytona?
But the heart and soul of each episode are the backstories of the kids; the life experiences that have shaped them and brought them to Navarro — and the personal drama that they must check at the gym door to succeed on the mat.
We follow Lexi, the troubled high school dropout from Houston; Morgan, the flyer from a broken home in Wyoming; Gabi, a “cheer-lebrity” balancing college demands with the challenges of being her own brand; La’Darius, the over-the-top former football player who’s been called “fruity” his whole life; and Jerry, the big-hearted stunter who lifts his teammates up as high emotionally as he does physically.
Their relationships with each other, and with their beloved coach Monica, are the emotional sunshine that the world needs right now. There’s no Real Housewives-style cat-fighting; no season-jeopardizing drunken college parties; no surprise mid-semester pregnancies. Positive “mat talk,” not negative “trash talk.”
When a stunter drops his partner and blames her behind her back, Monica swoops in to suggest he call her and talk through what went wrong. They do, and they nail it the next day. When a female tumbler’s social media account gets hacked and compromising pictures get posted, Monica takes her to file a police report. A conservative Christian, Monica passionately defends her team members who are gay or nonconforming, saying, “These are my kids and I’ll fight tooth-and-nail for them.”
It’s no wonder they revere her.
By the final episode, we’re practically toe-touching for the team and “mat talking” each person through their 2 minute and 15 second-routine that we've come to know so well. The performance is utterly heart-pounding, augmented by the fact that Netflix wasn’t allowed to film it and relies on shaky cellphone coverage shot by attendees. And yes, their chief rival is also a Texas school — Trinity Valley Community College in Athens — but if Navarro wins, we get to see them run into the ocean with the trophy, and we really, really want to see this happen.
By the end, we’re also cheering for the kids to make good life choices. As Navarro is a two-year school, many won’t be back. And as the series points out, there’s no professional career for competitive cheerleaders. This is it — a college national championship is their biggest, best, and last moment as a cheerleader.
One thing we know: Coach Monica is back at Navarro, and tryouts for next year’s squad are already under way. According to the school's website, a Recruit Clinic and Tryout will take place there January 20.
No pressure, Netflix, but this might just make compelling footage for a Season 2.