Cheer director talks Jerry Harris allegations and the impact of COVID on Daytona dreams in season 2
Warning: This article contains spoilers about Cheer season 2.
Cheer is back with a second season of dizzying top-of-the-pyramid highs and crash-landing lows.
This season, the beloved cheerleaders from Navarro Community College and their fearless coach Monica Aldama aren't the only focus of the Netflix docuseries. Season 2 introduces the audience to the cheer team over at Trinity Valley Community College, the Navarro Bulldogs' biggest rivals.
But meeting new cheerleaders isn't all that's going down on the show's sophomore outing. Since the release of the show's first season — which documented the buildup to the N.C.A. College Nationals in Daytona, Florida — a global pandemic swept the nation, ultimately canceling the 2020 competition. But that wasn't the most devastating news. Season 1's breakout star, Jerry Harris, was indicted on child pornography charges and accused of exploiting and sexually abusing underage boys. (Harris pleaded not guilty to seven charges regarding five minor boys in December 2020.)
We chatted with the show's director and executive producer, Greg Whiteley, about all the drama that unfolded on and off mat since we last checked in with the Navarro cheer team and asked him who he was rooting for at Daytona 2021.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: One of the big changes this season is that we also get to see Trinity Valley Community College's team training in the buildup to Daytona as well as Navarro. How did that come about and why did you make the decision to include them?
GREG WHITELEY: I think the fact that they're in season 1 — they're just briefly mentioned because you know, there's a big rivalry — but also, they're just 30 miles down the road. So it was kind of an obvious choice. The advantage of TVCC is they're the brand new school and there's so much time that we spend in season 1 explaining who Navarro is, what their history is, who Monica is, what her backstory is, the town, we introduced you to the people in the town, and that had been all covered in season 1 and so season 2, by adding another school, you get the opportunity to do that again.
How was working with Coaches Vontae and Khris Franklin and the team over there? I'm constantly impressed by how articulate and open and able to express themselves all the young stars are.
Gosh, I hadn't thought of it that way. For one thing, I think it's an intense activity, cheerleading. I mean, it's a sport that is gonna attract pretty interesting people and so there's an advantage. I think also if you're in a position like Franklin or Vontae, and you're a coach, you better be able to articulate yourself, otherwise I think you're gonna be bad at your job. Cheerleaders by and large in their very nature are outgoing people so that's really helpful on camera.
So another big difference going into season 2 is that the Navarro squad now have this newly found fame and a bunch of press and PR opportunities. Did that make things more challenging in any way, since some of the squad were being pulled away, or did it just make for more interesting content?
It's just simply what was true. We're there to document their story and it would've been impossible at that stage to document the Navarro Cheer team's story without accounting for their fame. My sense was, just like anything that's new — and I've never been famous in that way so it's hard for me to speculate on what exactly that feels like — but there was a lot of demands on their time. There are many instances in which I felt like, especially somebody like Monica or Morgan, they were being split in many different directions because the regular schedule of a cheer season, especially as you were ramping up for Daytona, is so intense. So to break away and shoot a Buick commercial or to take a phone call from an agent or a journalist or 15 phone calls from an agent or journalists, that starts to pile up. We did see that.
You were filming the buildup to Daytona 2020 when the pandemic hit. At that point, did you consider releasing what you had as a season on its own, or did you know you wanted to hold off and combine 2020 and 2021 into one season of the show?
That's a great question because there was some debate internally. There were certain people that felt like, "Hey, you have the footage for four episodes or five episodes so let's release that." I always felt like the structure of the show is building towards an end and I think to deliver just four episodes or five episodes that denied the audience that end would've been extremely unsatisfying. So I lobbied hard to do it the way that we did it, which is, let's just hold on to this footage. Another thing, too — it's very difficult to know how those first four episodes should be structured when you don't even know how it's going to end. We're editing as we shoot, but we aren't making final locked decisions until we know how the show ends.
Something you had to cover on the show was the shocking sexual misconduct and child pornography charges against Jerry Harris, who had gained so much popularity after the first season of the show. How did you react in that moment when you found out, first as someone who was close to him, and then as a producer who now has to navigate a very delicate situation on film? Did you consider cutting footage of him from the show completely?
To me, it was never an option to cut him out of the show. I wouldn't be doing my job as a documentarian if we didn't somehow account for his story, not just because he's in the first four episodes — he's still a part of the team — but because that event had such a massive impact on the team, I wouldn't be honestly telling the story of that team without accounting for that somehow. The whole situation is heartbreaking. It's heartbreaking to think of someone you know being arrested. Then you meet at least two of the alleged victims and their mom and then you hear their story and your heart breaks for them. The whole thing is just tragic.
The episode where we meet the twins was a very hard episode to watch. Was it tough to film?
I think our process, from a professional standpoint, is the same. I think the way that I've explained it to other people is it felt very much as though I was covering the death of a friend. There was somebody that I thought I knew and now it appears, anyway — the judicial system needs to go through its process, but it appears — that there were aspects of Jerry's life that I just didn't know and his close friends didn't know this about him either. I'm convinced that that's true and the amount of time that I spent with them and as many times as I've asked that question of them... The lawyer for the twins who have accused Jerry, she's a victim herself of sexual abuse, and she explained it best when she says that's sort of the nature of this crime. It's something that the people are only able to do when they're really good at hiding that even from people who are close to them. When that comes to light, it just feels as though this person you thought you knew is now dead. It felt very much like that. It was just unbelievably sad. Then you just add on top of this getting to know the twins and their story and how their lives were impacted by these events and it's just awful.
The twins were so brave to come forward and talk about it all on camera, too. How did that come about?
Well, we interviewed the USA Today reporters who broke the story and we learned that they had contact with the mom. We asked if they would make an introduction and we just proposed this and I'm so grateful that they accepted.
Was anyone reluctant to talk about it on camera?
Nobody turned us down. They answered any question we asked them and I'm grateful for that, too, because you could tell in the footage that you've seen, it wasn't easy to talk about, obviously.
I wonder if it was cathartic in a way for them to have an opportunity to talk it out?
Yeah, you'd have to ask them. I don't know if we were part of that healing process, but I think they recognized where our heart was and us wanting to authentically document their story generally, but this story in particular and they obliged.
What was your take on the La'Darius/Monica fallout? Do you think he was lashing out because he felt abandoned by her?
I'm not a psychologist, so I think these are probably questions for somebody other than me. What we witnessed was this relationship that we felt, as a filmmaking crew, very invested in. We were very close to La'Darius and obviously very close with Monica. I think their relationship is much more than just a coach and a cheerleader. It probably is something that, at least in some aspects, starts to resemble that of a family — either a mom and a son or a really close aunt and a nephew, whatever you wanna say — and in all family relationships, they can get messy and complicated. And this one certainly does at points.
Once you got to Daytona, were you super torn between who you wanted to win?
It's funny, I have to really put myself back in time. I don't know if it was who do you want to win versus the other, because I feel like we've got this job that is intense. We are just trying to document everything and to have both teams in the same place with all of that going on, you're just hanging on to the back of a car as it goes 180 miles an hour. But I did feel myself heartbroken for the team that lost and elated for the individuals that were now celebrating, who we knew how much that meant to them. I'm hoping the audience feels the same way. You know, it's not like you've got the Bad News Bears who you love and you've got the Yankees who you hate. These are two teams who, I think, are infinitely lovable and I'm hoping we take audiences on the same ride that we went on when we were there.
Yeah! Well, personally, I was more just hoping no one would mess up than thinking about who I wanted to win.
That's exactly how I felt. I felt like a parent when both teams were performing.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
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