Review: Hellcats 1×1-1×3

Cheer for cheerleaders!

In the US: Wednesdays, 9/8c, The CW
In the UK: Not yet acquired

It’s easy to stereotype cheerleaders. Take your pick: blonde Barbies? Bubble heads? Sluts in flesh-expositng outfits? Cliquey? Agents of patriarchy, doing nothing more than standing there and looking pretty while cheering on men? Nothing more than pom pom twirlers?

This is, of course, bollocks.

Apart from the fact that there are male cheerleaders, top-level cheerleading is an incredibly demanding athletic sport – it’s responsible for 2/3 of sports injuries among women at college and requires hours and hours of dedication, training and practice. As with football, its associated scholarships can also be the only way some American women (and men) can afford to go to college and it’s enabled people from the likes of Katie Couric and Meryl Streep through to supreme court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and even Ronald Reagan to get to the upper echelons of society.

These and other stereotype crushing facts are what you’ll learn if you watch The CW’s new dramedy, Hellcats, based on Cheer: Inside the Secret World of College Cheerleaders by journalist Kate Torgovnick. Oh, and you’ll get to see lots of buff young men and women in skimpy outfits – including Ashley Tisdale from High School Musical! Woo!

Here’s the extended trailer:

Plot
HELLCATS is a coming-of-age story about Marti Perkins (Aly Michalka, “The Roommate,” “Bandslam”), a pre-law scholarship student at Lancer University in Memphis, Tennessee. Marti is a hip, edgy townie with working class roots, whose world flips upside down, literally and figuratively, when her scholarship is cancelled and her well-meaning but irresponsible mother, Wanda (Gail O’Grady, “NYPD Blue,” “American Dreams”) neglects to inform her.

Broke and out of options, Marti realizes the only way she can stay in school is by repurposing her dormant gymnastic skills to win a place on the Hellcats – Lancer’s legendary cheer squad – and the scholarship that comes with it. She had been a rising star in high school gymnastics until she abruptly quit senior year, so Marti knows she has the moves and athleticism needed for the squad. When she rocks the tryouts and “makes the mat,” Marti is thrust into a world of camaraderie, backstabbing, and competition that takes place at the intersection of the Memphis music scene, backroom academia, college town politics and big money collegiate sports – in the Deep South, football is God.

Marti’s new roommate, Savannah Monroe (Ashley Tisdale, “High School Musical”), is a petite, peppy Texan and captain of the Hellcats. Savannah has led a sheltered life up to this point. She was home-schooled by her strictly religious parents, but recently had a falling out with them over her newfound secular lifestyle, co-ed living arrangements and racy Hellcats outfits. Savannah’s faith is still important to her, but she’s also a fierce competitor, and loves her role as captain of the squad.

The fact that Savannah was chosen to be captain is a sore spot with squad member Alice Verdura (Heather Hemmens, “CSI: Miami”), who was on track to become captain until Savannah transferred in and snapped up the position, displacing Alice as the Hellcats’ top flyer. Alice has a complicated past with Lewis Flynn (Robbie Jones, (“One Tree Hill”), an architecture student who gave up football at Lancer when he was disillusioned by corruption in the football program. Although he has only been cheerleading for a year, Lewis has found it to be every bit as challenging and competitive as his former sport. He has also moved on from his relationship with Alice, despite her still-strong feelings for him, and he’s more than a little interested in the newest star on the squad, Marti. As if her recent injury wasn’t enough, Alice sees the budding friendship between Lewis and Marti as a new cause for alarm.

Surrounded by all these new people, Marti feels lucky she can turn to one familiar face: Dan Patch (Matt Barr, “Harper’s Island”), a townie who has been her best friend since first grade. Dan still lives with his large, working class family and works the docks as a machinist. Even though he’s never felt the need to go to college, Dan is a budding documentary filmmaker and is never without his camera.

Overseeing all the practices and personal drama is former Hellcats star and current coach Vanessa Lodge (Sharon Leal, “Dreamgirls,” “Private Practice”). Vanessa has a history with Red Raymond (Jeff Hephner, “The O.C.”), the school’s football coach, a history which creates conflict between Vanessa and her fiance, the Hellcats team doctor, Derek (D.B. Woodside, “24”). Vanessa’s job is on the line unless the squad wins the upcoming nationals. Just like Marti, Vanessa’s future is riding on the Hellcats ascending to the very top of the fiercely competitive cheerleading world.

HELLCATS is from Bonanza Productions Inc. in association with Tom Welling Productions, Warner Bros. Television and CBS Television Studios with executive producers Kevin Murphy (“Desperate Housewives,” “Reefer Madness”), Tom Welling (“Smallville”) and Allan Arkush (“Heroes,” “Crossing Jordan”).

Is it any good?
Well we sat there waiting to have low expectations met, and it turned out to be quite good. Colour us surprised.

Set in Memphis, Hellcats sees slightly alt girl Marti (played by singer, songwriter, guitar-playing, pianist Aly Michalka) discover that her drunkard mother has messed up her pre-law scholarship and soon she won’t be able to continue college – unless she finds another scholarship. Marti soon discovers that cheerleading scholarships are available, and despite being laden down by as many stereotypes as most people, decides she might as well go for it if it means she can still go to college.

Needless to say, Marti gets into the ‘Hellcats’ – or else there wouldn’t be much of a show – and is soon making new friends and new enemies in the Hellcats house, as well as meeting potential new boyfriends.

The first two episodes deal with introducing Marti, her mother, potential boyfriend Lewis, new friend Savannah (Tisdale), best friend Dan and arch-enemy Alice, but mainly in the context of the cheerleading. These episodes are very much about showing what life is like for college-level cheerleaders, the financing, what it means to those involved, and how Marti slowly becomes part of the ‘Hellcats’. We get the normal “trial by fire” try-out and we also get the supporting cast subplots: the cheerleading coach who used to be a cheerleader and is now dating the doctor – except the football coach also used to date her back when she was a cheerleader… and he was the coach. We also learn how Marti can so easily slip into the cheerleading squad – she used to be a gymnast until her mother’s appearances at her sporting events put her off completely.

There’s also a little introduction to the God-fearing South’s attitude to cheerleading, where we have Savannah’s bible-bashing, home-schooling mum (Teryl Rothery from Stargate and Kyle XY – just one of the Canadian actors whose presence tells you very quickly you’re watching a show filmed in Toronto) who’s treating her like an outcast for joining the flesh-exposing Hellcats when her sister is on the Christian, well-clothed cheerleading team at another college.

It’s the third episode which introduces Gale Harold from Vanished as Marti’s law professor and gradually fleshes out the other characters, while introducing us to new ones in the shape of Marti’s fellow pre-law students (and Star Trek fans). We also get a look at the pressure to perform and some of the drugs you might need to do that at college level. But it’s also the first episode that takes us into the territory we all feared: Fame. Here we have cheerleaders dancing in the street and some very soapy dating scenes. Oh dear. I’m hoping that’s a one-off.

Future episodes look likely to deal with the various emotional complexities of all the relationships, but also the pressures of putting in the epic amounts of work necessary to be a professional cheerleader and keep that all-important scholarship while juggling that work with the pressures of a college degree.

Michalka, it has to be said, is pretty much perfectly cast, not being a total Barbie and with just the right combination of sassy, physicality and smarts for the role, even if she hasn’t mastered the local accent. All the characters are actually likable and you want them to succeed. The scripts aren’t totally predictable, have tension and decent character interplay, even if some of the central themes (the bad mum who has to be looked after by her daughter, the mean girl who wants the good girl to fail) are hackneyed.

In other worse, it’s actually pretty good.

The production is the biggest problem, with the Canadian filming locations robbing the show of any real sense of place (it says Memphis on the tin, but this ain’t Memphis), the music sounding like something dreadful from the 80s, the editing using flipping cheerleaders for wipe cuts between scenes and the switch between the actors and their gymnastic stunt doubles very obvious.

I also have to say, if you ever thought that the whole “women in bikinis vs men in shorts” dichotomy on beaches was inherently sexist, the disparity between the ab-exposing, mini-skirted uniforms and gym workout kits of the female Hellcats versus the flesh-covering outfits of the male Hellcats will take you to another level:

Female Hellcat uniform

Male Hellcat uniform

But Hellcats is enjoyable, informative and fun to watch. It’s not the exploitation-fest I was expecting and has most of the same joys with the characters that Gossip Girl used to have but without the excesses.

Carusometer Rating: 2
Rob’s prediction: Should run for a good few seasons, although what happens when pre-law finishes?