‘America’s Sweethearts: Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders’: Netflix Review 5

Dating back to 2016’s Last Chance U, Greg Whiteley and a team of many of the same collaborators have been honing one of television’s most successful formulas at Netflix.

The combination of intimate, character-driven portraits and best-in-class sports photography has followed Last Chance U, with its initial focus on JUCO football, to three different schools and then over to basketball, as well. Then, without the Last Chance U banner, Whiteley and company somehow achieved even greater success with two seasons of Cheer, as well as 2023’s Wrestlers, one of my 10 favorite shows of last year.

America’s Sweethearts: Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders

The Bottom Line

Falls short of the ‘Cheer,’ ‘Wrestlers’ pinnacle.

Airdate: Thursday, June 20 (Netflix)
Creator: Greg Whiteley

In an odd way, Whiteley and company’s new Netflix seven-parter, America’s Sweethearts: Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, is the ultimate validation of the formula’s strength and the One Potato Productions craftspeople’s skills. It’s the worst of their Netflix series and, as it gets thoroughly and frustratingly caught up in the mythos surrounding its subjects, the first time of their shows that has ever felt more like a well-polished commercial than an eye-opening documentary.

Yet for all the times you wish that the series were capable of digging deeper, that it feels like individual episodes and the entire season lack a cohesive storyline, it’s still almost impossible not to be entertained for the duration and to find a few characters and moments that make the journey generally worthwhile, if not fully satisfying.

America’s Sweethearts: Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders presents a unique pair of challenges for EP and frequent director Whiteley, director-producer Chelsea Yarnell (Cheer) and the rest of the gang.

For one, this is the first time they’ve chronicled an institution that needs them and their spotlight significantly less than they need it. I was constantly aware of how the DCC — as everybody calls the cheerleaders — and the Cowboys Empire were controlling and limiting access and of the myriad ways that the DCC’s entire infrastructure is built around curbing individual candor in the name of collective messaging.

Secondly, this is the first time that this group has found itself making a series that has, honestly, already been made. From 2006 to 2022, CMT aired a series called Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders: Making the Team which, as the title suggests, was all about the audition process for the DCC, built around Kelli Finglass, the DCC’s longtime director, and Judy Trammell, its veteran choreographer.

The gap in production quality between America’s Sweethearts and the CMT series is like the difference between Dizzy Gillespie and a child playing a kazoo, but for at least four of the seven episodes, America’s Sweethearts is a rerun of Making the Team.

We follow Kelli, personality best defined as “Passionate about the DCC,” and Judy, personality best defined as “Passionate about the DCC,” as they weed through hundreds of online and in-person auditions with cheer contenders and then cut that field down to 45 training camp selections, and finally, the 36-woman squad.

Along the way, we learn the basics about what makes a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader — unlike Cheer, the conceit here isn’t proving that cheerleading is a sport, but rather positioning what the DCC does as occupying the intersection between high-octane dance and high-charm brand ambassadorship — and we meet maybe a dozen of the aspiring rookies and savvy veterans competing for those coveted slots.

The aspirants have personalities that can collectively be best defined as “Passionate about the DCC,” which doesn’t always give the storytellers clear pathways to make them distinctive.

There’s Kelcey, a rising team captain approaching her fifth and final season on the squad and definitely passionate about the DCC. There’s Reece, a former beauty queen hoping to make the team for the first time, whose passion for the DCC is second only to her passion for Jesus (she’s far from the only one). There’s Victoria, whose emotional elimination and subsequent success is a key Making the Team plot point and whose passion for the DCC was passed down from her mother.

We also spend time with Kelly, facing the geographic adversity of hailing from New Jersey; Anisha, an orthodontist by day, cheerleader by night; and Anna Kate, whose sister Caroline recently ended her DCC career and is now trying to figure out what comes next.

Those early episodes stick closely to the conventions of the competition reality genre — choreography challenges, judging panels, catty commentary. Heck, there’s even a makeover episode in which the girls go to a salon and express terror that the judges might chop their hair off.

There are flaccid attempts to build stories within that structure, including trips home to meet the girls’ families and the revelation of various heartbreaking secrets. This absolutely allowed me to know a dozen of their names, though since nearly everybody’s name is “Kelly,” that’s hardly an achievement.

But once the squad is finally settled, there’s a bizarre “What do we do now?” confusion. The series races through the rest of the football season in its last two episodes with no objective at all. Is the drama supposed to come from whether or not the Cowboys make the Super Bowl? Because they don’t. Instead, there are brief spotlights on Dolly Parton performing at halftime in the Thanksgiving game and something bad that happens to one of the girls who hadn’t been featured for a single second previously, making her storyline both unfortunate and unfortunately arbitrary.

America’s Sweethearts is a series with very little conflict. This is a gathering of dozens of women between the ages of 20 and 31, in which there’s no fighting — or even minor disagreements — in which sex and drugs and alcohol are completely nonexistent, in which constant critiquing of their bodies leads to exactly one, nonspecific eating disorder.

Despite intense competition, there are no rivalries and despite intense physicality and references to a lifetime of subsequent degenerative conditions, we witness no injury worse than one twisted ankle. And maybe it’s all accurate! Maybe DCC Land is the most magical of magical kingdoms, but what are the chances that any storytellers would actually want to tell this conflict-free story?

What’s frustrating is that the filmmakers know the things they should be more curious about, but those avenues prove to be dead ends. The very first episode, for example, introduces the idea that NFL cheerleaders are economically exploited, with references to how little the Cowboys cheerleaders used to be paid per game. At no point do we learn what they’re making now and if this is an active concern for anybody, those concerns aren’t ever expressed again. Too much satisfaction!

If you pay attention, you can see the cracks in the “Happiest Place on Earth” veneer — Victoria is introduced literally sobbing through a huge smile, while Caroline’s wheel-spinning approach to her life post-DCC is oddly poignant, if thoroughly sanitized. But the series is too frequently caught up in the veneer — and, I suppose, in the smiley white veneers — in marveling at the shiny silver belt buckles and impeccably tailored boots and the superficial gloss that comes with the DCC iconography.

I still found myself caring about a number of the cheerleaders and even investing in things like the precarious “Thunderstruck” jump-splits. But when the seventh episode concluded with several participants symbolically removing their thick layers of makeup and eyelashes with the camera as a mirror, I was very aware that the series hadn’t, in fact, actually taken us beneath any surfaces at all.

Whiteley’s previous shows have all felt like they were stories that he and his crew needed to tell. America’s Sweethearts: Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders feels like a story that Netflix, aggressively diving into bed with both the Cowboys — a 10-part series about the Jerry Jones glory years is coming soon — and the NFL, wanted told. It’s not the same thing.

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