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 fervor 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 L.A. 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 told The Times.
Brumback, 20, is one of five athletes at the center 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.”
Nothing to lose
A few years ago, Whiteley was in Scooba, Miss., filming “Last Chance U,” which follows junior college football players trying to qualify for a four-year school, and noticed the cheerleaders on the sideline. He decided to check out a practice and was immediately struck by how intense it was.
He soon had the idea to follow a team as members prepared to compete at the national championships in Daytona Beach, Fla. — the biggest and effectively the only competition in college cheerleading. After a little research, Whiteley realized the Navarro squad — which had then won the championship 13 times — would make an ideal subject.
“The moment we began filming,” he said, “all of us felt like we had something special.”
An experienced documentarian — he made “Mitt,” which went inside Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign — Whiteley trusted his instincts when it came to selecting which of the team members to follow in “Cheer.” “In the first few days, there’s going to be a handful of people that are going to jump out at you,” he said.
Aldama mentioned that team member Simianer had had “a rough upbringing,” but initially he knew almost nothing about his chosen subjects beyond that. (We eventually learn that for a time in high school Simianer lived with her brother in a trailer.)
“It turns out they weren’t just interesting in terms of how they performed on the mat,” he said. “They were also really amazing people off the mat.”
Whiteley has ideas about why elite cheerleading seems to appeal to athletes who’ve been through such personal hardship. The sport is so demanding, both mentally and physically, that it draws “people that maybe feel they’ve really got nothing to lose.”
“Think about the type of courage it takes to be launched into the air 20 to 30 feet in hopes that these people you just met are going to catch you,” he said.
Marshall, who had a brush with fame in 2018 when a video of his hyper-expressive sideline dancing went viral, backed up this theory, calling cheerleading “a safe haven for people that are hurt.”
“I never got that love and that nurturing,” said the 21-year-old, who was taken in by a family friend while his mother was incarcerated. “The only way I knew that I had purpose is by how much I touched everybody when I cheered. They’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, the way you perform.’ That is like someone saying that they love me, that I am doing something that is making them happy.” It has even helped Marshall repair his relationship with his brother Antonio, who we see in the series crying while he watches La’Darius compete: “I finally felt like he saw me,” Marshall said. “I finally felt like I was not invisible.”
Harris, 20, who joined him by phone, has become a fan favorite because of his relentless optimism and morale-boosting “mat talk” — the high-pitched, mile-a-minute pep talks he gives his teammates from the sidelines.
The New Yorker described him as “a human sunbeam,” but Harris, who is more reserved than his exuberant cheering persona suggests, said, “I just think of myself as someone who is very positive.”
Marshall, the chattier of the two, described Harris as “my personal role model. I love you, Jerry. You are more than a sunbeam, baby child.”
He continues: “Jerry balances me with the love and the heart and the compassion. I balance him with that confidence, that tough love. We’re like the yin and yang. I’m like that dark and he gives me some of that light. He’s that light and I give him some of that dark.”
Over the phone, the friends crack each other up almost constantly. In “Cheer,” they bond over their shared love for “Bad Girls Club,” an Oxygen reality show about unruly women living together (and often brawling) in a mansion. The series “is really good for us,” Marshall says earnestly, because it shows the importance of talking things out rather than fighting.
Their odd-couple friendship is briefly tested in “Cheer” when Aldama, weary of Marshall’s attitude, temporarily gives Harris his spot on the mat.
But Marshall speaks glowingly of his coach.
“She treats everyone as if they are her child and she would do anything for us and that’s where that loyalty comes from.” He says she commands respect because of her fearsome alter ego, known as Annette. (“If Annette jump on you, child, that’s the end of your career.”)
“Annette” aside, Aldama can be tough as nails when it comes to making decisions about what’s best for her team. And she stays stone-faced, even when her athletes get injured — which they do, frequently.
But she’s also a compassionate and nonjudgmental mentor who has earned comparisons to the “Friday Night Lights” character Tami Taylor or “The Blind Side’s” Leigh Anne Tuohy.
She supports Brumback through a personal crisis involving nude photos posted online. And even though she describes herself as conservative, Aldama talks in “Cheer” about defending her male cheerleaders, many of whom are gay, in a long conversation with her pastor.
“I want to make sure they feel loved no matter what,” she told The Times. “I will have their backs no matter what.”
What’s next for Navarro?
The “Cheer” athletes now seem poised to become influencers. On Instagram, they have hundreds of thousands of followers. They’ve gotten social-media shout-outs from Reese Witherspoon, Chrissy Teigen and J.J. Watt. Brumback has plugged a flat tummy app. Harris has an account on Cameo, where fans can pay $75 for a video greeting of him doing mat talk.
The enthusiastic embrace of the series has taken its subjects by surprise. “I thought people would want to go out there and try to find something to hate, but I’ve gotten so much positivity,” said Brumback.
Given the microscope her charges are now under, Aldama senses she may need to step into the Mama Bear role even more often. “We’re learning as we go. I’m trying to protect them as much as I can and give them the best advice possible. It’s been such a whirlwind.”
The series ends with the question of “what’s next” unanswered. There is no professional cheerleading league to try out for after Navarro, and few of the “Cheer” kids — and even some of their coaches — seem certain about what to do outside the sport that is their sanctuary. Even though Brumback, Marshall and Harris all left Navarro at the end of “Cheer,” they have all returned. Perhaps they’re back to film Season 2?
Netflix declined to say whether a second season was in the works, and Whiteley, who ran into major obstacles filming the championships in Daytona, is also evasive about the possibility of another go-around. For now, as always, Aldama’s eyes are on the prize.
“We’re trying to catch our breath and keep our head above water at the moment,” she says, “and maybe try to find time to practice.”
When: Any time
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)