Hellcats - "A World Full of Strangers"

Hellcats - "A World Full of Strangers"

Hellcats debuts tonight on The CW at 9 p.m. Eastern.

Hellcats is terrible. But it's an endlessly, strangely watchable terrible. At some level of this show, someone knows that what they're doing is kind of stupid and goofy, and they're just going with it and having a lot of fun. This isn't a show to be wholeheartedly recommended, but if you've seen the promos and thought this looked like a show for you, it just might be worth a shot. It's a show where the majority of wipes between scenes feature a little CGI cheerleader flipping across the screen, and that's often the least ludicrous thing that's just happened. Scored by wall-to-wall pop music, Hellcats has boiled the CW formula down to its essence, then put it in a cocktail shaker with Glee and Bring It On until a strange hybrid creation emerged. Again, if that sounds interesting, this show could make for some lighthearted fun before the real fall season kicks in.

Hellcats' strongest weapon is its lead. Alyson Michalka isn't the world's greatest actress, not by a long shot, but she's exactly the kind of actress that works well in a show like this. She's not so good that it becomes easy to wish she was on a better show (as with whatever show JoAnna Garcia pops up on in any given pilot season). But she's not so bad that she constantly reinforces the fact that the show she's on is a bad show. She's the right combination of winning and game and sassy to drive a show like this, without ever being so good that it makes the rest of the show seem pointless. It's a hard blend to pull off. It's probably not even possible to consciously turn in a performance that's calibrated to just the right side of average. But something about Michalka at the center of this show just works. (It also, admittedly, might have something to do with the fact that she's ridiculously attractive, making her somehow believable as an outsider who hates cheerleaders and one who becomes a cheerleader by the end of the pilot.)

The biggest thing standing in the way of the pilot being good is the fact that it's compressed what feels like several episodes' worth of story into one hour of TV. In short, this is a premise pilot, and premise pilots increasingly feel creaky in this day and age. Is it really necessary for the show to spell out just how Michalka's Marti came to be one of Lancer University's cheerleaders? Probably not, but the show rushes through a bunch of scenes where it depicts her loss of a scholarship, her discovery that the cheerleaders get scholarships, and her frantic training for tryouts in the space of about 15 to 20 minutes. After that's all over - and of course Marti makes the squad, because where's the show otherwise? - the show tosses us what is, essentially, an entirely different episode about iconoclast Marti (who's not all that iconoclastic, really) having to live in a dorm labeled Cheer Town. The story structure here is a complete mess, like grafting much of the Eliza Dushku plot from Bring It On onto the side of the typical CW show structure but using Scotch tape instead of stitches.

Furthermore, not a lot of it makes much sense. Marti becomes a cheerleader by standing around in her surprisingly large apartment (a set the show will never need again, it would seem) and watching Bring It On. After a couple hours of practicing, she's ready to join the squad, despite the fact that she mostly bombs her tryout, only turning around the judges' opinion of her by doing some random dance moves. The show later tries to explain this away in a short scene near the end where Marti explains her secret cheerleading super powers, more or less, but by this point, everything is so ludicrously amped up that the show probably should have just left well enough alone and made Marti a cheerleading idiot savant.

Hellcats is also deeply confused about how it wants to treat its cheerleading characters. They're strong athletes! No, they're stupid, petty people who only care about popularity! They're hyper-talented people who could choose any career path they wanted, maybe even politics! No, most of them are idiots! The show has so internalized every negative thought the audience might have about cheerleading that it goes from feeling hatred for Ashley Tisdale's Savannah character (one of the heads of the cheerleading squad) to feeling a sort of sympathetic respect for her in the space of something like ten minutes. The show wants to take viewers on Marti's journey, but because it's so compressed, Marti's journey never makes much sense whatsoever. There's a better version of this pilot, that starts the series off with Marti already on the squad for scholarship reasons, utilizing the cheerleading skills she's always had but wanted to put away for whatever reason, still feeling a sort of bitterness toward these people.

And yet there's something so watchable about Hellcats that it feels disingenuous to complain about it too much. It's easy to wonder if some of the pilot's stupider moments aren't there intentionally, as a way to preemptively mock the very idea of having a goofy soap about college cheerleaders on the air. It's hard to imagine that anyone involved in the show really thinks Marti could become a good cheerleader (or regain her former skill level) by dancing around her apartment and copying Kirsten Dunst for an afternoon, but there's something so good-natured about the way the show tosses this notion off that it somehow becomes somewhat endearing. "I dunno. This probably couldn't actually happen, but wouldn't it be great if it did?" the show seems to say. "And isn't that Alyson Michalka fun?"

It's often difficult to review a show like Hellcats, which is deliberately aimed at an audience that's not made up of the kinds of "serious" TV fans who tend to read online TV criticism. On the one hand, Hellcats will reach its audience handily, and everyone in that audience will probably love it. On the other hand, shouldn't they be demanding better from their throw-away entertainment? At the same time, there's basically no way Hellcats could even be a show on the level of a Sons of Anarchy or even a Glee. The very premise indicates a kind of lackadaisical approach to making TV. Where that should be infuriating, though, the show has something in it that will win a certain number of skeptical fans over. They'll be scoffing at it the whole way, but when the season inevitably ends with some sort of winner-take-all cheerleading competition, they'll be just as riveted as the fans that take this shit seriously.

Stray observations:

  • I've seen two versions of this. A cut-down pilot presentation (which ran about 33 minutes) and the full pilot. What's interesting is that very little of the presentation was reshot, and the new scenes in the pilot - which mostly suck - were added to introduce a slew of new characters for no apparent reason, including one played by D.B. Woodside.
  • One of the less interesting aspects of the show is the budding love triangle between Marti, her best guy friend, and one of the guys on the squad. This is actually an interracial love triangle, which gets props from the bottom of my multi-cultural heart, precisely because the show never mentions the racial angle, nor seems all that interested in it, really.
  • Hellcats is set in Memphis, Tenn., but it may as well be set in LA for all the local flavor it manages to toss in there.
  • Working theory: Aaron Douglas shows up in a small part halfway through the episode. At one part, Marti exclaims "crap!" but it sure SOUNDS like "frak!" Does Hellcats take place in the Battlestar Galactica universe?!
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