Hellcats -- TV Review

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The cheerleader's reputation on American television is lousy: They're insular and stuck up at best; slutty and the meanest of mean girls at worst. But with "Heroes" and "Glee" putting a new spin on the old (dance) routine, the pom-pom faction has begun to take back the fight.

Enter the CW's "Hellcats," a surprisingly sweet look the Lancer University cheerleading squad, which has just been invaded by sneering outsider Marti Perkins (Alyson Michalka). Marti calls them "happy little cult members" -- her buddy Dan (Matt Barr) adds, "I don't trust any culture that builds pyramids" -- but cheerleading is the only thing that can save her scholarship once her original funds get canceled. A few viewings of "Bring It On" later, and she's not only wowing the judges at tryouts, at her first practice, she's schooling the girls.

Yes, audiences should beware not to let their eyes roll too far back in their heads at the fantasy concept of a) swapping scholarships midsemester and b) a protagonist who wows everyone in sight (known as the "Mary Sue" character in fan fiction parlance). But once the concept is firmly established, "Hellcats" makes a graceful backflip, with multilayered characters that defy expectations. Marti's new compatriots include admiring male cheerleader Lewis (Robbie Jones), who is flirtatious but kind, and Savannah (Ashley Tisdale), who gives a blistering defense of cheerleading as a sport to Marti but also is honest about wanting her to do well on the team.

"Don't drift," Dan cautions Marti once she seems to accept that there's more to these "cult" members than she thought, but of course she will. There's a certain thrill in watching the outsider taken in and made a part of the family, rather than converting everyone else to her cause, and "Hellcats" promises plenty of creative push-pull in episodes to come. It would have been easy to turn this show into a hair-pulling, claws-out bitch fest -- heck, with that title, it's almost false advertising not to. But while there's plenty of meanness, soap opera antics and titillation (plus lingering camera shots of Marti's smokin' bod) going on, "Hellcats" stacks up well against expectations. Three cheers.

Airdate: 9-10 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 8 (the CW)
Production: Bonanza Prods., Five and Dime Prods., Tom Welling Prods., Warner Bros. Television and CBS Television Studios
Cast: Alyson Michalka, Ashley Tisdale, Heather Hemmens, Robbie Jones, Matt Barr, Gail O'Grady, Sharon Leal
Executive producers: Kevin Murphy, Tom Welling, Allan Arkush
Based on the book by: Kate Torgovnick
Creator-writer: Kevin Murphy
Producers: Jae Marchant, Rose Lam
Director: Allan Arkush
Directors of photography: Glen Winter, Stephen McNutt
Production designers: David Willson, Michael Joy
Costume designer: Caroline Cranstoun
Casting: Bruce H. Newberg, Coreen Mayrs, Heike Brandstatter