One-season wonders: ‘Hellcats’ (2010-11) (TV review)

CW publicity photo

With the fall TV season off to a rough start, it’s beginning to look like this might be a good time to catch up on older shows. Although I started watching “Hellcats” (2010-11, The CW) on its original airing, I bailed before it completed its 22-episode run, probably because TV was better overall back then and there were only so many hours in my TV-watching week. Until recently, “Hellcats” would’ve been filed under “TV shows lost to history,” but with the CW Seed making it available for streaming, it gets reclassified as a “one-season wonder.”

It was perhaps the melodrama that turned me off the first time around: Created by Kevin Murphy and allegedly based on a book about competitive college cheerleading, “Hellcats” is so contrived and manipulative that I laughed out loud at times. That having been said, it’s often a ton of fun, too. The obvious hook is the cute cheerleaders, the colorful outfits and the deliciously choreographed routines set to modern pop hits. A lot of the show’s appeal is in those in-your-face elements, but there are other surprises as “Hellcats” goes forward: A great soundtrack that goes beyond dance tunes into the singer-songwriter realm, an on-point message about how the powerful and connected make the law work for them, and a love triangle that has genuine chemistry.

The main character is Marti Perkins (Aly Michalka, now on “iZombie”). She’s basically a superhero, as she is a law student working on getting an innocent man’s conviction overturned, a cheerleader for the Lancer University Hellcats, and a freelance singer who performs at a near-campus bar unfortunately called The Rat. Plus, she also has time to take care of her flighty mother (Gail O’Grady, the mom on “American Dreams” and “Hidden Palms” before this), search for her long-lost drug-addict dad and stumble across a sister she didn’t know she had (Michalka’s real-life sister, AJ). And she bounces among various relationships in classic teen drama fashion, and presumably takes a full course load. By comparison, I barely have time to put in a day’s work and watch an episode of “Hellcats” when I get home. I guess we all had to be adept at juggling responsibilities in college, but … damn, Marti!

Just as Michalka made the jump from Disney’s “Phil of the Future,” Ashley Tisdale – who plays Hellcats captain Savannah — graduated from “High School Musical” and “The Suite Life of Zack and Cody.” Savannah’s main issue is that she has a devout Christian family but she’s going to a secular school on scholarship as a way to shape her own destiny. Her melodrama comes from the scripters throwing hurdles at her: Her dad suddenly is a public official who embezzles money. Her sister is suddenly having her baby prematurely at the exact same time as nationals. Everyone on the team is suddenly sick the day of nationals, and so forth. For Michalka and Tisdale, “Hellcats” was a perfect transitional ground between kid and adult roles, and it’s surprising that the latter’s career seems to have waned.

The supporting cast doesn’t have a weak link, and in many cases, characters who start off as stereotypes develop layers. Ryan Kennedy does good work as the entitled Lancer quarterback who ultimately decides to confess to his crime that someone else took the fall for. As “Nasty” Kathy, Magda Apanowicz is an intriguing wild card as the captain of the crosstown rivals, Memphis Christian, who develops an interest in the Hellcats’ Lewis (the solid Robbie Jones). D.B. Woodside, in one of the most oddly specific pieces of typecasting on TV, yet again plays the perfect boyfriend (of the Hellcats coach, played by Sharon Leal) who for some reason gets the brush-off – see also “Once and Again” and “Parenthood.” But he adds legitimacy to any show he’s on.

When Marti and Savannah simultaneously realize they have strong feelings for Dan (Matt Barr) – Marti because he’s her best friend, Savannah because he’s her first serious boyfriend – I honestly could not guess which way the love triangle would go.

What set “Hellcats” apart from the CW pack, though, was the subject matter. It’s one of very few scripted shows about cheerleading, and it’s certainly the most well-known (it does owe a serious debt to the “Bring It On” film series, of course). Like “Friday Night Lights” and “Glee,” the contrivances over the course of the competitive season are hilarious. While the Hellcats don’t have to build their own gym like the Dillon Panthers had to build their own field, the way they barely qualify for sectionals, regionals and nationals through various rules quirks, backdoors and narrow escapes is ridiculous. And somehow, Memphis Christian is their rival the whole way, right up to nationals!

Still, the cheer routines give “Hellcats” a steady supply of spice; the staging only looks awkward when the script calls for the Hellcats to look bad. The writers do a good job of keeping things fresh, as many of the choreographed scenes are not strictly cheerleading scenes: for example, an impromptu street breakdancing session or a 24-hour dance marathon competition – which, of course, can’t compete with “Gilmore Girls’ “ version.

Likewise, Marti’s rendition of “Wild Horses” has nothing on Angel showing up to Buffy’s prom at the last moment, but I’ll let her get away with it because she has a nice voice. In other episodes, Ali and AJ (who are a music duo in real life) sing their fictional dad’s quirky folk tunes, and AJ sings Dan Bern’s “Albuquerque Lullaby” with Ben Cotton, who plays the wrongfully imprisoned – and then rescued by Marti, natch — Travis Guthrie.

In its early days, The WB was known as a showcase for great in-show music, namely “Buffy’s” The Bronze, and “Hellcats” brought that tradition back on The CW. It’s a shame there was no soundtrack released (although you can at least find a list of the tunes here.) Perhaps the substantial use of music on “Hellcats” is why it hasn’t been released on DVD, as music rights have prevented “The Wonder Years,” “Beverly Hills, 90210” and other shows from getting proper DVD releases to this day.

I hope good viewership numbers on CW Seed (which, despite claiming to be a comedy channel, also offers “Almost Human,” another single-season gem not released on DVD) will lead to a DVD release someday. In the meantime, the fact that “Hellcats” is streaming is worth a cheer.

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