If you thought that Hellcats, the new CW series about collegiate competitive cheerleading, would do for that sport what Glee did for high school music programs, you had the same thought process as the creators of this series. Or perhaps I should say the same hopes, as Hellcats follows many of the same beats as the FOX mega-hit in an attempt to create a sense of ongoing narrative and develop its lead character. But of course, Hellcats is not Glee.
The series wants to think it is, though. The pilot episode quickly introduces the lead character Marti Perkins, who is this series’ Finn Hudson. She’s a townie but can’t wait to get out of Memphis (as if it’s such a horrible place to live!), and is hoping that her dreams of being a lawyer can get her there. When her scholarship is taken away, she must find funding because her lower class single mom can’t do it all on her own and so she tries out for one of the university’s most prestigious programs: its cheerleading squad! But even though she’s an outsider, she can actually dance! What?!
And thanks to some budget cuts (this sounds familiar) that have to go to another, better program, which in this case, it’s odd because the funds are going away from cheerleading and towards football (either way, still familiar), the Hellcats have to place at an upcoming competition or they’re…DONE! This sounds familiar. There is some mention about a local competition and then nationals, blah blah, it’s all the same imaginary rhetoric to create stakes Glee used, except now that we’ve watched it once there, it seems even more annoying here. But because of those possible budget cuts, Marti’s “unique” dancing style is going to be the spark (just like Finn’s voice!) the team needs to really place at upcoming competition X.
The similarities to Glee don’t stop there, as it looks as if we’ll be seeing one or two “random” dance sequences each week that we’re supposed to believe are totally off-the-cuff. I loved how the Hellcats have fans who come to watch even their practices and just cannot resist getting down themselves as their favorite cheer squad practices. Yikes.
More seriously though, despite its obvious influences (I appreciate the attempts to acknowledge the greatness that is “Bring It On!”), Hellcats isn’t really all that bad. The pilot is fairly formulaic in structure: Outsider joins team to resistance of some, excitement of others and is not sure how she’ll balance the new world with the old. Half the season’s arc can already be plotted out, as can the character beats: I can’t wait until townie friend Dan gets tired of how Marti’s “changed,” but still finds himself hooking up with the cheer captain Savannah or when Marti has to choose between a big pre-law course exam and practice and makes the wrong decision. We all know how this is going to go.
However, the execution is solid enough and the actors, who are all familiar despite not being that great in any one role (aside from Aaron Douglas and DB Woodside, obviously) fit into their roles nicely. It’s actually refreshing to have a series set in college so the actors can play their age a little more with realism. Moreover, there aren’t as many specific types as you’d expect. Savannah isn’t really that much of a uber-bitch and Robbie Jones’ Lewis isn’t a dumb super-jock cheerleader (that’s a thing, right?) either. They aren’t anything special, but it’s nice to start with more subtly instead of such broad strokes when we all know that these people will end up as friends or sexual partners anyway. All the actors, particularly leads Alyson Michalka and Ashley Tisdale and Michalka and Jones, have solid, light chemistry. The adult storylines are totally undefined and feel tacked-on and I’m pretty sure they are since DB Woodside’s character was added in later. I get that we’re supposed to care about the coach, but bringing back an old flame when we’re not even sure what the relationship is with Woodside’s character muddles things early on. I’m happy there is an adult group, but it’s going to need to be more fleshed out moving forward.
Finally, one that differs Hellcats from Glee is that it seems to take itself more seriously, but at the same time not in the mood to preach. Glee is obviously funny and goofy at times, but the desire to recite a middle school report on an “issue” each week brings that down. Whereas here, cheerleading is more or less respected and thought of as sport, but the characters themselves don’t feel the need to discuss big issues or be lectured by their coach. It gives the series less definition in terms of where the stories go (I’m guessing a lot like One Tree Hill), but it’s also less pushy.
Hellcats surely won’t be one of the season’s best new series, but it’s safe and middle-of-the-road enough to be a successful CW product that isn’t really offensive to anyone.