For years, “America’s Next Top Model” has been one of The CW’s bedrock shows, but Tyra Banks’ only-occasionally-realistic peek into what it takes to become a model has never done what hits are supposed to do for TV networks. Despite reliably keeping The CW (and UPN) in the demo ratings game on Wednesday nights at 8 p.m., “ANTM” has proven to be an island. No matter how acclaimed or seemingly compatible a show The CW has programmed at 9 p.m. nothing has stuck.
Las year, The CW tried the most literal approach yet to encourage audience flow. The netlet programmed “TBL: The Beautiful Life,” an only-occasionally-realistic scripted peek into what it takes to become a model, produced by Ashton Kutcher. Audiences rejected the show on an epic level and The CW spent almost the entire year wasting the time period on random repeats, including futile efforts to make viewers care about a reboot of “Melrose Place.”
This fall, The CW is hoping for thematic compatibility. Tyra’s pseudo-feminist manifesto on how women can be simultaneously fierce and hypersexualized, all while learning to smile with their eyes (or “smize,” if you feel like paying Tyra her trademark royalties) will be followed by “Hellcats,” which uses cheerleading as a medium to show how women can be strong, smart and independent, all while being hypersexualized and dedicated to an unbendable team concept.
Stupid me, I actually though “TBL” might be a show capable of working after “Top Model” because of its topical overlap. And, silly me again, I now think “Hellcats” might work here as well. It’s not especially fresh material, nor is it all that nuanced, but it’s peppy and occasionally clever and it offers ample eye candy for any and all tastes.
[A bit more of a review, though possibly brief, after the break…]
Created by Kevin Murphy, but notably executive produced by Tom Welling, “Hellcats” goes out on a not-so-precarious limb to argue that cheerleading isn’t just a sport, but it’s a sport featuring well-conditioned athletes who live and die for their craft like any other athletes. In taking that stand, “Hellcats” isn’t just retreading the terrain established by Jessica Bendinger and Peyton Reed on “Bring It On,” but also the material Bendinger worked on “Stick It” and that was then repeated in uncredited form on ABC Family’s “Make It or Break It.” But perhaps these are points that bear repeating?
“Hellcats” stars Aly Michalka (formerly known to young viewers from her Aly & AJ days, soon to be known to older viewers for her impressive abs) as Marti, a pre-law student at fictional Lancer University in in Memphis (Vancouver). [In the original pilot cutdown, Marti was a first year law student, which was stupid and I’m glad they went a more reasonable direction.] Anyway, Marti has dreams, but she’s also lost her scholarship and if she doesn’t find money, she’s going to be kicked out of school. Whatever is a bendy young girl to do? Well, she could get a work study job. Ooops. Let’s not consider that. She could apply for other grants and scholarships. Not enough time! She could sell hook on Beale Street. Nope. This is The CW, not FX or MTV. She could go work at the docks. Heck no. That’s the kind of job performed by icky townies like her platonic BFF Dan (Matt Barr) and Marti doesn’t want to go down that path.
Instead, salvation comes in the form of equally bendy young coed Savannah (Ashley Tisdale), a Lancer cheerleader. On one hand, Marti likes to mock cheerleaders for all manner of cliched reasons. On the other hand, cheerleaders get full scholarships. Fortunately, Marti was a trained gymnast, plus she possesses dance moves that wouldn’t be out of place at the local Coyote Ugly, where she’d probably get better tips.
Next thing you know? Marti is cheering and she’s soon to learn that the group she previously mocked without cause is actually a lovable band of outsiders, albeit bendier than most. And this awkward band of outsiders absolutely positively has to place at Nationals, or else Lancer is going to cut funding.
Wait. Does that last paragraph make “Hellcats” sound less like “Bring It On” and more like a more recent phenomenon? A certain show that FOX has done a little bit of promotion for in the past year? Well yes. The team behind “Hellcats” would be content to conjure up memories of Kirsten Dunst and Eliza Dushku in short skirts, but they’d probably be even happier to get you thinking about “Glee,” or at least some alternate reality version of “Glee” in which the Cheerios are the plucky underdogs. It’s a bit harder to sympathize with these cheerleaders, but the effort is made and instead of lip-synching, “Hellcats” offers pyramids, belly-rolling and hip-thrusting to go with its empowerment.
Michalka is easy on the eyes and, at least initially, inoffensive on the brain. She only comes to life when she’s dancing, but perhaps that’s a character choice?
Tisdale avoids making Savannah into another bitchy cheerleader on her resume, managing to be both annoying chirpy, but also kind of likable. And you won’t compare Savannah to Sharpay from “High School Musical” because Tisdale no longer looks a thing like the young lady in the first “HSM” movie.
Someone in the casting department at “Hellcats” must love “One Tree Hill” (and yes, I’m too lazy to see if there’s overlap), with Barr (Psycho Not-Derek) and Robbie Jones (RIP, Q) in prominent and solid supporting roles.
The “older” actors in supporting roles are a mixed bag. As Marti’s mom, Gail O’Grady is rocking a comical Southern accent that nobody else in the cast seems to be bothering with. Maybe she’ll just stop by the second episode. Maybe by the second episode, I’ll also have gotten more of a feeling for cheer coach Sharon Leal, as well as Jeff Hephner and D.B. Woodside, who weren’t in the first cut-down presentation sent to critics, but appear in the pilot.
I didn’t leave “Hellcats” with a great investment in the characters and their worries, but I chuckled a couple times at the dialogue and often enjoyed the pilot’s superficial pleasures. Coming after “Top Model,” what more can viewers — particular viewers outside of the core demo for either show — ask for?
“Hellcats” premieres on Wednesday, Sept. 8 at 9 p.m. on The CW.