Television

How Cheer Handled One of Reality TV’s Biggest Controversies

Faced with horrifying charges against its breakout star, the Netflix series tackles them head-on.

Jerry Harris in a red sweatshirt facing the camera
Jerry Harris during the first season of Cheer. Netflix

In its first season, Cheer was a guaranteed hit: Released in early 2020, the Netflix reality series about an award-winning community college cheerleading team combined feats of strength with charismatic characters whose personal stories, struggles, and relationships were unexpectedly moving. The show exemplified the maxim of “never give up” while shining a light on hardworking, underprivileged teens finding a meaningful, nonjudgmental community in athletics. When the pandemic hit two months after Cheer’s debut, those themes helped to keep its star shining: Here was a group of stunting Texan teens that could be a bastion of hope during a hopeless time. Thanks to this winning formula, the Navarro College Bulldogs went from cheerleading-diehard icons to national darlings, performing their choreographed routines on Today and Ellen, recording paid messages for fans on Cameo, and becoming social media influencers.

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Cheer’s breakout star was Jerry Harris, whose bottomless energy and fondness for motivational speeches won him widespread attention. Ellen DeGeneres hired him to be her show’s red carpet correspondent for the Oscars, where he excitedly interviewed A-listers and watched his own star rise. Joe Biden even recorded an interview with him on Instagram Live during his presidential campaign.

But in September 2020, USA Today broke the news that Harris was under investigation for allegations of sexual misconduct, including soliciting sex from underage boys. The FBI arrested Harris and charged him with receiving child pornography, later adding charges including sexual exploitation of children. Deemed a possible danger due to his repeated actions—asking minors for nude photos and sex over platforms like Snapchat—Harris has been held in jail as he awaits trial in February.

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Viewers were shocked; celebrity fans were shocked; most of all, Harris’ teammates and friends were shocked. The severity and grotesquerie of his actions were undoubtedly reprehensible, and in Season 2, Cheer does not shy away from that fact. Episode 5, “Jerry,” is an unvarnished, critical recounting of what transpired leading up to and following Jerry’s arrest—a powerful indictment of one of reality TV’s most beloved characters and the centerpiece of one of its most disturbing tragedies.

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Over the course of the hour, news footage from the fall of 2020 detailing the allegations is complemented with contemporary interviews with an assortment of people, like Gabi Butler and La’Darius Marshall, Harris’ teammates, fellow fan favorites, and among his closest friends; and Monica Aldama, Harris’ coach, confidante, and Cheer’s true lead. (We do not hear from Harris or his attorneys, despite producers’ attempts.) “I was just scrolling through Twitter,” Marshall says of the moment he found out about Harris, “and I see Jerry.” “I felt like someone had just died,” Butler says, through tears. Aldama talks about finding out the news while backstage during Dancing With the Stars, on which she was a contestant in fall 2020: “We had a team meeting that night, and it really felt like a funeral,” she says, shaking with tears.

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But these tearful recollections are not the meat of the episode. Instead, viewers spend the bulk of its runtime with two of Harris’ actual victims, Texas twins Charlie and Sam, as well as their mother Kristen and an attorney, Sarah Klein. (An advocate for victims of sexual abuse, Klein is also a former gymnast and sexual assault victim of USA Gymnastics’ physician Larry Nassar.) When the episode cuts to Charlie and Sam for their first on-camera interview, it’s an almost jarring confirmation that Cheer is not going to tiptoe around what its most famous cheerleader did. The boys and their mom, Kristen, share what happened to them in plain detail, speaking with an honest clarity beyond their years. Charlie and Sam talk about the comfort they found in cheerleading, which they sacrificed by speaking up about the messages Harris sent them and his attempts to assault them at events. Kristen explains how many months it took for the boys to first tell her what happened, then file reports to cheerleading organizations involved, then get those reports recognized at all—only for them to be brushed aside, leading her to reach out to the press and the FBI.

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Most heartbreakingly, Charlie and Sam talk about how they tried to remain in cheerleading afterward, only to receive glares and become the butt of rumors; they have been made to feel “so uncomfortable and so different and so isolated.” But when asked if they have any regrets about coming forward, Charlie and Sam say in unison: “No.” Would they speak out again if they had the chance? “Yes.”

The episode becomes a cultural excavation of what can lurk behind all the smiling brightness of cheerleading competitions and associations. There are institutional failures that can aid and abet child abuse and sexual assault, no matter how sparkly the veneer—the similarities to the USA Gymnastics horrors both are made bluntly and serve as ongoing subtext. But the episode also tackles the difficulty inherent in reconciling the person you thought you knew with the person they really are. James Thomas, another of Harris’ teammates and best friends, speaks about the questions teammates asked one another:* Why didn’t I know? Could we have helped him? There will never be answers to these hypotheticals, and that looming unknown can hurt, as it has clearly hurt Aldama. The new season of Cheer casts an unflattering light on her at times, referencing the negative reception to her public statement about Harris’ charges (she focused on her own shock and heartbreak) and her continued internal battle over how to be supportive of Harris throughout all this, or even if she should be.

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Viewers hesitant on returning to Cheer after these long, revealing, disturbing two years may worry about starting Season 2 because of a similar battle. The show’s popularity was not wholly owed to Harris’ charisma, but he came to define it in the months after its debut. Cheer was a show about the light that’s at the end of the tunnel, if you commit yourself to stay working toward it and don’t let life’s hardships hold you back. Investing in a team, and a sport, that harbored the person who took advantage of this positivity could feel selfish or impossible. But the new season doesn’t shy away from how this tension persists on a creative or individual level, nor does it—at all—absolve anyone of their actions.

“It’s very easy when we fall in love with people we feel connected to in some way to have them on a pedestal and to believe they can do no wrong,” Klein says. But thankfully, Cheer has no inhibitions about knocking Jerry Harris off the pedestal he never deserved to be placed on.

Correction, Jan. 20, 2022: This piece originally misidentified James Thomas as James Taylor.

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