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Reality show drive-by: Cheer Perfection
Competitive cheerleading and reality television should be a match made in heaven
 
Alisha Dunlop, the star of Cheer Perfection, gives the girls a pep talk.
Alisha Dunlop, the star of Cheer Perfection, gives the girls a pep talk. (TLC)

It's a bit surprising that it's taken so long for a reality show about competitive cheerleading to make its way into the ring, given the ongoing success of the Bring It On franchise and its subsequent musical. That's saying nothing of the fact that cheerleaders are a key element of unfiltered Americana, and will continue to be as long as teen movies, TV shows, and professional sporting events have their say. Even as our culture widens its scope of acceptance and transgender teens win homecoming crowns, there will remain something quintessentially American about a blonde, gorgeous cheerleader flying through the air alongside a football game with a phalanx of her peers grinning below her.

Perhaps it took the success of Lifetime's Dance Moms — which features young girls who are aggressively pushed to athletic success by an overbearing coach and even more overbearing mother — for a network to take a stab at the world of competitive cheerleading. Having said that, Cheer Perfection is a massively watered down version of the Lifetime hit, namely because the venomous Abby Miller has been replaced by a perky blonde named Alisha Dunlap.

Dunlap's empire is Cheer Time Revolution, where she molds teensy little girls into fierce cheerleading machines before they're within years of puberty. It's the kind of activity that can be divisive from a parenting and/or cultural perspective, though Dunlap is no stranger to controversial children's activities: She coaches, tans, and glams up burgeoning young beauty pageant contestants in a side business named Perfection Studios, which is connected to the Toddlers & Tiaras universe.

Dunlap's daughter Cassadee (right) at a competition. (TLC)

But cheerleading appears to be Dunlap's real passion. She has three tow-headed little girls making their way through the ranks of her cheer academy, all of whom look like button-nosed mini-mes of their mom. There's Cassadee, 12, Cambree, 6, and Chanlee, 3, as well as Alisha's beefy husband R.D. and a supporting cast of young cheerleaders trailed by their overbearing moms.

The show is set in the small town of Sherwood, Ark., and there's enough magnificently shellacked hair helmets and thick drawls to make it clear this is truly cheer n' pageant country. The name of the game is collecting medals at numerous national competitions, all while Dunlap keeps in check the stage moms who fill her gym's periphery.

Much like gymnastics and dance, competitive cheerleading makes for easy viewing even if you've never heard of a triple cow sow or barrel tumble. It's easy to lock into the pattern of a show like Cheer Perfection because it asks a basic question: "Can these girls get it together in time for the big competition?!"

Now in its second season, the show sticks with a formula that works, dipping into small-time dramas while slowly building the stakes up to the final competition. It's hardly earth-shattering drama, but it nicely merges the fun of watching competitive performance with real-ish characters.

Cheer mom Ann gets stressed out while watching practice. (TLC)

Unfortunately, the moms and pre-teen daughters that fill Alisha's gym aren't reality gold by any means, and are easily outshined by Dunlap's enormous television persona. With her white-blonde bob and massive blue eyes, she comes out of the box like a fully formed Amy Poehler character.

But, unlike Miller, she seems unwilling to devolve (or evolve?) into a full-on caricature of herself, and instead reminds the audience again and again how much she loves and supports the girls who fill her gym year after year. And it's clear their mothers register her dedication, too. That was evidenced in the subplot of this episode, in which Alisha debates focusing full-time on one squad, The Fab Five, which would entail her handing off her younger team to another coach. By the episode's end, she's opted to stick with all her teams, which comes as little surprise.

The bigger question mark of the episode is whether a young cheerleader named Kylie will be able to perform in a big competition scheduled in Chicago after busting her knee just days beforehand. Her doctor warns her against, but Kylie's dedication to the team overrules that very sound advice. It's a nice moment in terms of team spirit, but one that also calls into question the motives and judgment of Alisha and Kylie's mother. Still, the team rallies behind their hurt teammate and go on to (easily foreshadowed) glory by winning first place in their division.

If Cheer Perfection doesn't reinvent the genre, its execution is pretty smooth, helped along by the slow motion transition shots of girls soaring through the air, mid-tumble. It's an unexpected reminder of the physical prowess these young lasses possess that's independent from the drama swirling around them for TV cameras. It's light but satisfying stuff, particularly for anyone who has found themselves mesmerized by ESPN's competitive cheerleading coverage and that sea of twirling hair-bows and flying ponytails.


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Jessica Jardine is from Northern California and has written for The Onion's A.V. Club, FILTER, BUST, Backstage, and Metromix.com. She is also a performer at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in Los Angeles and owns a Calico Persian cat named Beyoncé.

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