Watching the pilot, it’s hard not to marvel that something as cheerfully simple-minded as “Hellcats” — a series mixing the hard-bodied cheerleading of “Bring It On” with the back-biting politics of “Showgirls” — took this long to happen. Played partly tongue in cheek, the show’s premiere isn’t quite unabashedly trashy enough to completely qualify as a guilty pleasure, but one can see it developing into that — as well as posting reasonably impressive scores by CW standards, even if the execution doesn’t quite nail the landing.
The premise is certainly a hoot — a pretty first-year law student with a bad attitude, Marti (Aly Michalka), is about to be booted out of class because she’s lost her financial aid. Fortunately, she’s attending a mythical Southern football power, Lancer U. in Memphis, where the unorthodox scholarships include cheerleading, and Marti just happens to have been a competitive gymnast in high school.
So she reluctantly goes through tryouts, where her initial disdain of cheerleaders as “groupies” has already irked squad standouts Savannah (Ashley Tisdale) and Alice (Heather Hemmens). Nevertheless, her novel dance moves impress the coach (Sharon Leal), and her rock-hard stomach quickly gains the attention of Lewis (Robbie Jones), who is Alice’s ex.
Beyond the recent wave of cheerleading cinema, there’s a “Glee”-like element to Kevin Murphy’s script, which ups the ante (one can almost hear the network conveying that note) by saying the squad must perform well at the cheerleading championships or risk losing its scholarships.
Given the importance of football at the school, the explanation about needing to slash budgets in order to pay a coveted new football coach — part of its own soapy subplot — doesn’t quite compute, but let’s assume nobody will tune into “Hellcats” to obsess over continuity issues.
If there’s a weak spot in the pyramid, it’s Michalka, whose wide-eyed, perpetually startled look proves more distracting than her chiseled abs. (By contrast, Gail O’Grady is an inspired choice as her blowsy Southern mom.)
As venues go, it’s hard to beat competitive cheerleading among excuses to flaunt young bodies in skimpy outfits — or in the most amusing scene, no outfit at all, as a naked Marti tries to escape from a coed locker room. The elaborately choreographed cheer routines in the pilot are also kind of a blast.
Tonally, “Hellcats” certainly fits right in with the CW’s dramatic niche, and the scheduling behind “America’s Next Top Model” seems designed to give the show a logical springboard into its slick routine. Besides, it’s already a helluva lot better than last fall’s “The Beautiful Life” (abbreviated as “TBL”), lest anyone forget that gem.
Taking those factors into account, “HC” deserves a couple of mild cheers, even if there’s no reason yet to turn cartwheels over it.