2:30 pm EST, January 20, 2020

Netflix’s ‘Cheer’ is the spiritual successor to ‘Friday Night Lights’

Netflix’s Cheer will warm your heart, move you to tears, and make you care more about cheerleading than you thought possible.

In short, Netflix’s Cheer is the perfect six-episode spiritual successor to Friday Night Lights.

That’s a tall order, especially given how beloved Friday Night Lights (by me personally, but also for television writers/viewers in general) and how many more seasons it had to build itself up as the perfect show-about-sports-that-was-about-more-than-just-sports show.

Of course, I’m not saying that Netflix’s Cheer is a replacement for Friday Night Lights, nor is it even its direct descendent. There are too many differences between the two — a six-episode documentary versus a five-season drama, a two and a half minute competition versus a season’s worth of football games — for there to be a real direct comparison or replacement.

But if you’re looking to experience the same emotions of Friday Night Lights — the heartwarming moments of friendship, the tear-jerking times of hardship — want to be enthralled in the epic highs and lows of extreme competition, and just really, really miss Tami and Eric Taylor, then Netflix’s Cheer is here to fill that very specific sports show niche in your life.

Despite having exactly zero interest in football at any level, Friday Night Lights is my favorite show. I watched the first nine one-hour episodes in a row, and managed to finish the entire five season run of the show in four days.

Then I watched the entire show all over again.

My love for the show never translated into any real-life affection for the sport. I still don’t care about football, and I’ll probably never take the time to understand it. Despite this, Friday Night Lights remains my favorite show, the one that I rewatch when I need to have my heart warmed, or a good cry, or just to remember what great television is.

Friday Night Lights succeeds because while it’s a show that’s all about football, it’s also a show that’s about more than just football. All five seasons are about Dillon’s football teams (first the Panthers, then the Lions) and their journey to win the state championship, which sounds dreadfully boring on its face if you aren’t a football fan.

The show knew that it needed to appeal to folks like me, who love drama and competition and compelling narratives, even if we don’t care about sports, and so made sure to make us care about the characters on and surrounding the team. We fell in love with Matt Saracen and Tim Riggins; we wanted the best for Lyla Garrity and Tyra Collete; we wanted to be Tami and Eric Taylor. And because we cared about these characters so deeply, we also cared about what they cared about — winning the Texas Football State Championships.

Netflix’s Cheer takes a similar route with its storyline. It knows that we may not care all that much about the world of competitive cheerleading, but that we’ll care enough if we buy into the stories of the members of the team.

And so just as Friday Night Lights took us deep into the lives of its football team’s players, Netflix’s Cheer dives deep into the lives of Navarro Cheer Team members La’Darius, Jerry, Lexi and Morgan, making us root for their success and, by extension, the success of the Navarro Cheer Team.

For the cheer team members, we see the way that cheer has not only become their lives but has saved their lives. For La’Darius, cheer is a way for him to be truly himself in a world that was constantly pushing him to be someone else. For Morgan, we see the way that cheer has saved her from the worst parts of her tragic home life, while for Lexi it became a way to save her from the worst parts of herself. For Jerry, cheer is his happy place, a lifeline for when his world came crashing down around him.

In its limited six-episode run, Netfix’s Cheer delves into the trials and triumphs of each of these young adults, and we grow to not only know them but love them, wanting the best for them both on and off the mat, on the cheer team and in their lives beyond it. The show makes us care about the Navarro Cheer Team’s season because the young adults on the squad care about it so much, and by the season’s end, we want the team’s success just as much as the members of the squad do — not for our sake, but for theirs.

Coach Monica from Cheer

While Friday Night Lights changed up not only the players on its football team but the football team itself, moving Kyle Chandler’s Coach Eric Taylor from the Dillon Panthers to the Dillon Lions at the end of season 3, the one thing that remained constant in the show was the strong leadership and partnership of Coach Eric Taylor and his wife Tami Taylor.

Together the two represented the strongest on-screen marriage to date, while also coaching, guiding and supporting the members of the Dillon football teams on and off the field. Friday Night Lights was smart enough to realize that a team was more than just its players and more than just what happened on the field — it was also about the coaches on the sidelines and the stories that happened off the field.

Netflix’s Cheer also follows this model, though it tweaks it just a little. Though Navarro coach Monica Aldama is married, her husband is little more than a minor supporting character in the show’s overall narrative. Instead, Coach Monica is both Coach Eric Taylor and Tami Taylor rolled into one.

Like Coach Taylor, she’s all toughness and grit and steely-eyed looks in the gym and on the mat. She has high standards for her cheer team and isn’t afraid to make hard decisions. She works the squad hard, making them run routines until they get it right, and then continuing on until they can’t get it wrong. While the rest of the college enjoys their spring break, Navarro cheer team members stay on campus to endure hell week — 41 full sets of their Daytona competition routine.

Like Coach Taylor, she expects greatness and she gets it, having taken Navarro Junior College to 14 National Cheerleaders Association National Championships as well as five ‘grand national’ wins.

But she also calls the cheer squad members ‘her kids,’ and cares about them beyond what they can do for her on the mat and at Daytona. Like Tami Taylor, she has great hair and a great heart, learning about kids’ broken homes and broken lives, and giving them the care, attention and structure that they are so desperately missing and so desperately needing.

She has high standards and expects her kids to meet them, on and off the mat, but she also gives them the support and love to set them up to meet and exceed those standards. The team knows that she’ll give them her time, attention and her support, no matter what, and in turn, “her kids” will push themselves to the absolute limit for her.

Coach Monica is confident, competent and compassionate, and it shows in the way she runs the team and cares about its members.

“I would take a bullet for her,” Morgan says at one point in the show, and though I have never even met Coach Monica in real life, I found myself nodding along in agreement with her.

Navarro Cheer

Friday Night Lights may not have convinced me to give a single, solitary care about real-life football, but it sure as hell made me care specifically about the success of the Dillon Panthers/Lions high school football team. As I said earlier, the show is about more than football, but it’s also about football — which means the football storylines still have to interesting enough to carry the season.

And despite thinking that football is the most boring sport bar none, Friday Night Lights was structured in such a way that I looked forward to each game the team played more than I have ever cared about anything in professional football, ever. I cared about who would play quarterback and how well they did; if the team could overcome its injuries and interpersonal conflicts to play a good game; if they could manage to win it all at the end of the season.

I’m a lot more amenable to caring about cheer as a sport — I came from a high school where our cheerleaders were by far the best, most winningest athletes in our school — but even I was surprised at how into the cheer competition I got.

That’s because in addition to making us care about its cheer squad members and its intimidating, inspiring coach, Netflix’s Cheer also taught us about the ins and outs of the world of competitive cheerleading and just how much hard work, dedication and determination go into a season.

More than that, it wove a narrative that was both about a championship team returning to claim its title and a compelling underdog story, making the sports-centered show the best of both worlds.

Make no mistake, Navarro as a team isn’t an underdog in any way, as it has won 14 NCA National Championships and entered the 2019 looking to secure a back-to-back win. However, just as Friday Night Lights season 1 wove in Matt Saracen’s underdog story into season’s overall storyline, so, too, does Cheer weave in the underdog story of Morgan and Jerry into Navarro’s push for another championship title.

Though Navarro has 40 members of the cheer team, only 20 can be chosen to be ‘on mat’ — that is, compete in the Daytona Championship Competition that serves as the season’s end. There are, of course, shoe-ins — La’Darius as a talented stumbler (tumbler plus stunter), Lexi as a magnificent tumbler — but Jerry and Morgan represent underdogs who are talented and have potential, but aren’t quite there yet.

And so in addition to wanting the team to perform its complicated pyramid to perfection, we are also rooting for Morgan to hit her mark and Jerry to do more than just his mat talk for the Daytona competition.

Like Friday Night Lights, Netflix’s Cheer is a sports story that both is and isn’t about sports — one that makes us care about a team by making us care about the members of that team first, then taking us on the captivating, competitive journey of that team as it seeks to go all the way.

It’s an inspiring story that will make you cheer, will make you cry, and will make you hope that you can one day be as cool and confident as Coach Monica.

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