Cheer S02: The star of the change
Plus Rosanne Boyland and counterfeit booze
Another hat-tip to Craig Calcaterra at Cup Of Coffee for alerting me to a Times longread on counterfeit bourbon. Clay Risen’s piece from last week is great fun for a bourbon-drinker like myself who enjoys talking about and comparing bourbons, trading recommendations, and sending articles like this to her cousin — who isn’t her favorite because he’ll pour her a half-inch of Pappy unprompted, but that doesn’t hurt, I can’t lie — but thinks getting too precious about is not only ridiculous, but historically one of the advantages of not liking scotch. Bourbon had no status, so conversations about it felt almost collaborative, whereas you make a passing comment about Johnnie Walker Blue at your local and the next thing you know someone’s set up a PowerPoint and you’re getting Reply Guy-ed into the parking lot. But now the well-actuallying has arrived on our downmarket doorsteps, as Risen notes early in the piece — “‘Luxury bourbon’ was once an oxymoron; now, it’s the hottest thing in whiskey — before going on to observe that any bourbon con is first and foremost about the con, not the booze:
The disruptions caused by the pandemic have also created a new cohort of swindlers, some driven by economic desperation, others by boredom. And it has spawned a new pool of victims, as bourbon drinkers stuck at home with disposable income join the collecting fray, eager to show off their latest trophy.
“Part of the problem is the culture I see around bourbon, where it is about bragging rights and being able to Instagram a bottle you just bought,” said Adam Herz, a whiskey collector in Los Angeles and an expert in counterfeit bottles. “Most people I see ending up with fakes are partly to blame themselves. Any good con man knows how to take advantage of someone’s greed.”
Herz, whose day job is film production (he produced the American Pie franchise), is frustrated that distillers aren’t taking stronger action (the swindled seldom report, for the same reasons the conned usually don’t involve the authorities), and he and my cousin had the same reaction to the brisk market in empty bottles of high-end bourbon, to wit: obviously counterfeiters fill them with Maker’s, reseal them, and turn a massive profit.
The piece then moves into organized crime’s role in counterfeit booze (some of their “Kloonax facial tissue” fake brand names are hilarious), the 2017 Macallan incident, and inside jobs — and if you like Risen’s work, he wrote a similar piece in 2020 about Japanese whisky and how the lack of regulation makes it a tricky investment. — SDB
Buy me some bourbon with a paid subscription! …I’m kidding; mostly we use that non-filthy lucre to pay for our own streaming subs, and to try to pay our contributors a bigger fraction of what they’re worth. Plus you get extra content! — SDB
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Eve talked about podcast American Radical last month, but if you’d prefer to consume its story — of the late Rosanne Boyland, her “radicalization,” and what exactly happened to and near her on 1/6/21 — as an article, Vanity Fair dropped a companion story last week that “expands on the MSNBC team’s extensive reporting.” Boyland also figures heavily in New York’s “Gina. Rosanne. Guy.” from the end of the year, so if you’ve already read that one, you may find a bunch of familiar details in the VF piece — but it’s still worth a look, because it goes into more detail than you might usually find about QAnon “historical documents” like Out of Shadows and the Wayfair conspiracy, and tries to give insight into how “foundational texts” like these convert people like Boyland. Here’s a snip:
There may have been a deep-seated reason why Rosanne was so susceptible to one of the tenets at the core of QAnon: that children were being sex-trafficked by powerful elites. “She really wanted to have kids,” Lonna told us, “and she got cervical cancer a few years ago so she was not able to have children ’cause she got her cervix removed.” For this reason, she said, Rosanne was especially drawn to the welfare of other people’s children.
With the pandemic raging, more and more people were forced to spend time at home, isolated. To many, time became an abundant commodity. And for Rosanne that was time spent preoccupied with QAnon. “By joining groups like this,” explains Mia Bloom, a radicalism expert and professor at Georgia State University, “you get to reinvent yourself and have a fresh start, a fresh slate.”
Eve noted in her write-up of American Radical that the podcast “humanizes Boyland in a way that still doesn’t act like her beliefs or behaviors were OK,” and the VF piece walks a similarly successful tightrope, explaining the factors that may have contributed to Boyland’s attraction to Q principles without both-sidesing the events of the day. — SDB
[content warning for discussion of sexual assault and harm to children]
Jerry Harris, the breakout star of Cheer, “was arrested in September 2020 following an FBI investigation into allegations he repeatedly solicited sexually explicit photos and videos from boys he knew to be underage. Three months later, Harris was indicted on additional charges, alleging he solicited sex from minors at cheerleading competitions.” Now 22, Harris remains in Chicago’s Metropolitan Correctional Center pending trial; if convicted, he faces a mandatory 15-year minimum sentence.
The story, as so often is the case, is about…the story, about the return of Cheer for a second season despite the fact that Harris’s engine did so much to drive the show’s success in January 2020. Should the show have come back? As a commenter noted in yesterday’s discussion thread, entirely aside from the charges against Harris and how/whether the production ought to confront them (or is complicit by continuing), there’s the issue of what the narrative is this year, whom to cast as the underdog, the Heisenberg effect of the first season’s buzz, and so on. Add to that serious allegations that figuratively indicted many in the cheer community beyond Harris and outside of Texas, and the prospect of a second season would seem to have an ROI roughly on the order of juggling beehives.
But Cheer proceeded, so in addition to the question of whether it should have, we also have to ask if it did what it should have with the allegations — and if it did it when it should have. I’ll take the last question first: the second season begins, sort of, in April of 2021, then flashes all the way back to January of 2020, the media circus surrounding the show and the Navarro team, and the beginning of a new underdog story — this one focused on Trinity Valley, Navarro’s chief rival, and the evolution of that rivalry. To begin to shift the focus away from Navarro is smart, but the storytelling decision to go chronologically means that the Harris allegations (as well as COVID, which of course kiboshed that year’s nationals and created a timeline disruption of its own for a sports docu) sit like a smog over Cheer until the show finally gets to them in its own timeline, five episodes into the nine-ep run. I had the impression before sitting down to watch S02 that the show would be confronting The Jerry Thing right up top, and I understand from a pure build standpoint why that doesn’t happen; the production wants us to invest in TVCC “characters,” as well as newcomers to the Navarro squad, without bleeding viewers who only slowed down for the car-wreck part of the story. But as the episodes roll on towards the season midpoint and Harris is visible onscreen but not really acknowledged, I found it hard to focus on storylines I knew would get interrupted as soon as the chyrons located us anywhere after March of 2020. So, Cheer gets the “when” right…or the least wrong, really.
As for S02.E05, “Jerry,” itself…same answer, kind of. The ep unpacks the case against Harris, interviews the then-14-year-old twins who brought the highest-profile charges against Harris (along with their mother and their attorney, Sarah Klein), and queries Harris’s teammates about what they saw and how they felt — and still feel — about the revelations. The Cheer production team is also responsible for the excellent Last Chance U, and both shows have historically taken a compassionate interest in the structural racism and classism that make college athletics a literal lifeline for their subjects; that racism and classism also creates vicious cycles in terms of generational addiction and contact with law enforcement and the carceral complex, and Cheer and LCU make space to talk about what that looks like for the athletes without judgment or prescription. The hope going into “Jerry” is that the same show that gives a voice to, say, a D1 wide receiver who got pulled over for driving while Black, dinged with a couple of possession charges, and sucked into a whirlpool of court dates and debts, only to get spat out in Scooba, MS can also give a voice to a teenage twins who thought they had found a safe space and a created family in the cheer community, then got victimized by one of that community’s biggest stars, and believed that reporting would mean they got punished.
And for the most part, it is able to do that. Charlie and Sam, the twins who set the criminal side of the case in motion, talk a lot about how “starstruck” they felt, the shame and resentment they also felt, the fear that crossing Harris would get them ostracized, and it’s very affecting, as is their mother’s still-very-present fury at the sport’s governing bodies for doing almost nothing about their initial reports. Harris’s teammates have their chance to talk, too, and that too is compelling, as James continues to search for signs, chances he might have had to turn Harris off this path, and Gabi sobs, “How are you gonna just…hate your family?” You could argue that too much time is devoted to the reactions of the Navarro team and coaches, but leaving aside that they were our “protagonists” two years ago, that very real messiness and bereavement is part of it, that contending with the monstrous acts of a person who once lived in your heart — and the episode leaves room for us to decide how much we feel, or don’t, for these secondary victims and their experiences. It also condemns the institutions, from USA Gymnastics to the USASF to independent gyms, that don’t protect the (often already vulnerable) children in their charge. Here again, Cheer is faced with a menu of not-great options, but chooses the best one available, and it gets it mostly right.
So then we’re back at the first question, to wit: Should the second season of Cheer exist? It doesn’t totally nail the landing (as it were) on facing the allegations, or on when it chooses to do so, so…should it not have attempted another season at all? Yes, I think it should have. I think it needed to do the best it could to acknowledge, to hear testimony — to try, even if it didn’t work out, to model ways that productions and films and publishers and and and all through the culture can look at allegations and charges, instead of away. As I said years ago about a not-dissimilar case, “not doing the perfect thing immediately is not an excuse to then do nothing permanently,” and while this isn’t Cheer S02’s only value, at least the show can say it did something — not to “make up for” anything, or justify anyone’s behavior, but to normalize, well, doing and saying something about predatory behavior and big stars’ bad acts. I don’t think you have to watch it, but I do think it has to exist. — SDB
Friday on Best Evidence: More Crime Scene, plus cases we’re following.