Greetings to the New Series: “Hellcats”

As someone who grew up preferring reading to playing sports and had more success as a comic book collector and Trekkie than a ladies man, it will probably come as no surprise to you that my years in public school didn’t exactly find me traveling in the same circles as the cheerleaders. For many years, I perceived cheerleaders as goddesses who deigned to walk among us mere humans, a breed of woman who existed so far above me in the school social structure that I considered it a major end-of-the-year coup if could get any of them to sign my yearbook…and I maintained that impression right up until my little sister became a cheerleader, at which point several things happened semi-simultaneously:

1) I was put in a position where I was forced to acknowledge that if this gaggle of hot girls in short skirts had allowed my sister into their ranks, then she too must be considered hot by the masses. Not cool. Nobody likes the idea that other guys are thinking of their sister like that.

2) I was also forced to acknowledge something which I’d long suspected but hadn’t wanted to admit: that my little sister was far more popular than I was. Even less cool.

3) Less important from a social standpoint but arguably most germane to this discussion, a steady stream of cheerleading videos went into rotation on the VCR in our living room. Whether the girls are hot or not, a guy can only stand to watch so many routines in a row before losing his mind, and I hit my maximum threshold pretty quickly.

The end result of these three things was that I quickly lost my interest in watching cheerleaders in action…and the effect was long-lasting: long after high school, I found little interest in films like “Bring It On” and “Sugar and Spice” because, frankly, I’d had enough cheerleading to last me a lifetime. As such, when it was announced that The CW’s fall line-up would featuring a full-fledged cheerleading drama, I reasonably presumed that I’d still be just as uninterested as I’d ever been.

This time around, though, I had a slightly different reaction to watching the cheerleaders. Sure, as a straight male, my instinct was still to unabashedly ogle the hot girls in the short skirts…but as a 40-year-old male, I realized that my daughter is closer in age to the girls than I am, and I felt – quite appropriately – like a dirty old man.

But, c’mon, man, have you seen the star of this show?

I think even the most chaste amongst our readership can concede that Aly Michalka is, quite simply, smokin’, but as history has shown us time and time again, it takes more than a hot girl…more, even, than a squad of hot girls…to make a quality television show.

Is there more to “Hellcats” than just a bunch of pretty faces?

Well, at the very least, there’s more to it than the average non-female viewer will probably want to admit – yes, that’s right, sir, I’m speaking to you – but your appreciation of it will depend heavily on how you approach the material.

“Hellcats” begins by introducing us to Marti Perkins (Michalka), a pre-law student at Lancer College, in Memphis, TN. She’s sexy, as you can plainly see, but she’s so down to earth that she still manages to have a bit of a tomboy thing going on. She also has a wicked wit, a platonic male pal named Dan Patch (Matt Barr), and based on the opening scene of the pilot, a tendency to talk in that fast and furious manner which is favored by the characters on CW series but is rarely witnessed in the real world. Unfortunately, Marti’s mother – played by Gail O’Grady – works at a campus pub and is finding it hard to pay for her daughter’s tuition, forcing Marti go on a quest to find a scholarship in order to continue her education.

Good news: there’s a cheerleading scholarship.

Bad news: the aforementioned opening scene underlines with a big, thick-tipped magic marker the fact that Marti finds cheerleaders to be a repellent form of college life.

Still, Marti knows that her options are limited, and cheerleading seems easy enough, so she decides to give it a go and try out for the team. It’s a decision partially inspired by a loud, tense encounter with Savannah Monroe (Ashley Tisdale), who’s on the squad and finds it insulting that Marti should think so little of the amount of effort, dedication, and skill that goes into being a cheerleader.

Marti thinks it’ll be a snap to turn her dance moves into routines (it isn’t), and Savannah thinks Marti doesn’t have the kind of innate talent it takes to make the team, but (Not Much Of A) Spoiler Alert: Marti does make the team…but not without a bit of work. Vanessa Lodge (Sharon Leal), the former cheerleader who now serves as the coach of the Hellcats, watches Marti awkwardly strut her stuff on the gymnasium floor, but, as is the case with these things, she senses that she’s witnessing a diamond in the rough whose outsider sensibilities might be just the sort of thing they need to expand the horizons of the Hellcats and their routines.

In the end, the tie-breaking vote belongs to Savannah, who – having begrudgingly seen a spark of something in Marti’s moves – decides to embrace the situation, treating Marti like she’s her new best friend. Lewis Flynn (Robbie Jones), one of the few guys on the squad, clearly wants to embrace the situation, too…or, more specifically, Marti. (This will no doubt lead Dan to realize his long-held romantic feelings for her, because, again, that’s how these things go.) Far less thrilled about Marti’s presence is cheerleader Alice Verdura (Heather Hemmens), who dislikes Marti on sight and is just waiting for her to screw up and get the boot from the squad.

Michalka occasionally seems to be trying too hard to find the middle ground between bad-ass and lost lamb, but Tisdale is perfect as the perky Savannah. The number of pretty people amongst the cast makes sense, given the subject matter, but if they don’t find a way to include some folks who look like real college students, they’re liable to find some viewers tuning out because they can’t relate.

It’s hard to hate “Hellcats” for feeling a little cheesy at times, especially when the interactions amongst the cheerleaders tend to be the most fun parts of the show. Indeed, when things veer into the more “adult” material, like Vanessa’s relationship with the new football coach – Red Raymond, played by Jeff Hephner – or Marti’s mom’s past substance-abuse problems, it’s, like, “Hey, wouldja bring back the cheerleaders already?” And why wouldn’t you feel that way? The cheering routines are pretty awesome…and, remember, this is coming from someone who’s been burned out on that kind of thing for a couple of decades now…and, possibly not coincidentally, they’re so perfectly choreographed to the music that you’ll be reminded of “Glee” at times.

This ain’t Shakespeare, people. It’s an hourlong TV series about cheerleaders. Set your standards appropriately, and you might just enjoy it…and if you don’t, then you almost certainly know someone who will.

Like, say, your little sister.

  

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