Photo via etonline.com

5 stars

I started the Netflix original series “Cheer” while looking for something to watch on the treadmill that was exciting and drama-filled enough to distract me from a workout. Thankfully, “Cheer” turned out to be all that and more. 

Directed by Greg Whiteley, the six-part series hit Netflix in January. It follows the triumphs and tribulations of the Navarro Junior College cheer team, giving viewers a very personal, candid perspective on the sport of cheerleading, helping to reveal a side to the sport that not everyone is familiar with. The documentary-style series provides much-needed exposure for the sport at every level, highlighting the intensity, athleticism, and dedication that it requires. 

Beginning a few months out from the National Cheer Championships, held in Daytona, Florida each year, the show introduces viewers to the Navarro Bulldogs team athlete-by-athlete. The series develops the viewer’s connection to the characters through not only individual interviews but also footage from the group at practice, in the classroom and in their dorm rooms. With each episode, the team inches closer to perfecting their skills and routine for Nationals. 

I knew nothing about cheerleading before watching the series, but the particular brand of the sport displayed in this show is one that, as the show stresses, not nearly enough people are familiar with. The stunts and routines are physically taxing, testing the athletes’ bodies in ways few sports do. Injuries are incredibly common, highlighted in nearly every episode, as athletes get kicked in the face, dropped from midair, break bones and strain muscles. There are no pom-poms involved, just bodies flying and individuals flipping back and forth across the mat.

In addition to showing footage from the Navarro team, “Cheer” also traces the path that athletes must take to get to the highest level of the sport, and stresses that the dreams of a cheerleader end after college, which is a factor of the sport that many either don’t know or simply overlook. With no professional cheerleading options or Olympic teams, the athletes pour every ounce of passion and talent they have into their college cheer experience, and the show illustrates this beautifully. Interviews with coaches showcase not only the intensity but also the time and commitment college-level cheerleading requires. It’s cutthroat and competitive but, if all goes well, incredibly rewarding.

But the show sends a message beyond just showing viewers the ins and outs of the sport. It is aimed at Varsity Spirit Corporation for making it nearly impossible for the sport to gain exposure. Varsity Spirit is an American organization that essentially owns the sport of cheerleading in the United States. It puts on camps, competitions such as Nationals, sells apparel and oversees the entire sport. But it also restricts the spread of the sport and all its publicity. Under the rule of Varsity Spirit, competitions are no longer shown on ESPN and cameras are not allowed inside the events. The show displays this by showing event footage taken with iPhone cameras, a contrast to the professional filming used throughout the series. 

With no actors or actresses, just honest interviews and candid footage, a documentary series like “Cheer” is not what would immediately come to mind when looking for a gripping, drama-filled escape from reality. But, as viewers will discover very quickly into the first episode, it is just that. The footage included from practices will have you rooting for the team to land every trick and perfect every skill, allowing viewers to develop an intense and unexpected level of investment in each person in the show, something not always anticipated in documentaries. 

And at the end of the show, when you’re recovering from the intensity of the final episode, you remember: these are real people, real athletes and this is their reality. Once again, you’ll be impressed beyond belief.