A few months ago, a friend of mine recommended I watch the TV show Hellcats. I asked why. He said "it's about cheerleaders". I said, "right". Thus ended his review. So I thought I'd make a bit more effort to review what was one of the strangest series I've watched in the past couple of years.
Warning! This review contains spoilers. But since I don't recommend watching the show anyway, you might as well just read on.
Hellcats is about a group of cheerleaders by the same name at the fake Lancer University in Memphis, Tennessee. As some of the best cheerleaders in the country (apparently that's a thing), they want to compete in the national cheerleading competition. Welcome, once again, to the regional/sectional/semis debacle.
Whilst all this dancing is going on, we follow the story of Marti who is forced to join this eponymous Hellcats squad to earn her scholarship, so she can study law and change the entire legal landscape. Also, Marti's trying to find her estranged, supposedly-dead father, and everyone's copping off with each other. Standard college life really.
Where it all begins
The pilot of Hellcats is deeply strange. Marti finds out she needs a scholarship and then that she can get one by joining the Hellcats. She sniggers at this, perhaps associating with the audience that yes, cheerleading is dumb. But by the end of the episode she is not only happy to be part of the squad but is already an integral member.
I get that this is setup, but I feel like the writers burnt a great plot point immediately. The fish out of water story of a rock chic who doesn't quite fit in could've been great to watch, but is spent in the first forty minutes of the season. There's also next to no explanation of why Marti is so good at this cheerleading malarkey. She can do backflips and all sorts, and no surprise is made by her or her teammates that no education was needed.
It's all as if Marti was previously with a rival cheerleading squad, where she learned the trade, but then came to infiltrate the Hellcats to destroy their morale before sectionals. To keep up the ruse, she acted at first like she didn't fit in at all, but the façade faded rather quickly. Now that would've been an interested plot!
Tight jeans, Double D's makin' me go whoo-whoo
So, yeah, cheerleading. Perhaps as over-sexualised as a "sport" can be. That's probably where the idea of this show came from, an executive imagining pretty girls dancing around in short skirts and going "oh, throw some drama about cheating and teenage pregnancy in there to keep it moving". Indeed, despite the weird subplots to do with Savannah's sister and the "pay for play" culture the University apparently had (and still has? It was all a bit confusing), the focus of the show is very much on cheerleading.
Along with Marti's sudden conversion to cheerleading fanboyism, we also get a great insight into how Savannah (Marti's flatmate and the second-billing character) has changed personality completely during her time with the Hellcats. Prior to joining Lancer, we're told that Savannah was in a religious school called "Memphis Christian" or, wait for it, "Mem-Chris". The cheerleaders at Mem-Chris are more reserved, almost as if they're in direct competition with the Hellcats to cover/reveal as much flesh as possible. This is, the characters tell us, rather silly and abnormal.
Anyhow, Savannah transfers between these backgrounds and, having previously been something of a prude, rather quickly surrounds herself in Lancer's world of sex and partying without much of a look back. It's quite depressing really. Everyone I know who came to University reserved (which isn't a bad thing), has left through the same door. Savannah acts like a child who's just been hanging around with older kids and thinks she has to do everything they do. Of course, this dramatic change is only ever alluded to in the context of people supporting it and saying how much better off she is having deserted her morals, family and childhood.
The sexualisation does lead to my favourite part of the show though, where some of the Hellcats female members are asked to dance a bit for older men who fund the school's athletics department. The girls act shocked at the idea that they might be being used for the good looks and physique, rather than displaying their sporting potential. All this arguing of course takes place whilst they wear their standard short skirts and layers of makeup.
I love that part because I can't tell if the writers are making a joke at cheerleaders, or somehow admitting shame at the low-brow entertainment they've written. It's an almost fourth-wall breaking moment.
Noooo-oooone exists like Gaston!
Every piece of dramatic writing needs a baddie. They add conflict, and lead plots by challenging the otherwise plainly happy situation of the main characters. Hellcats doesn't seem to like keeping a baddie. In the pilot, Savannah acts like she might be Marti's nemesis, but then they bunk together and become instant pals. Alice takes over the baddie role for a while, but then has an annoying habit of saving the day when it really goes down.
Ultimately, there's a move towards the senior staff being the baddies, but Red Raymond turns out to be a thoroughly alright kind of guy, leaving Bill Marsh as the last remaining negative figure. Indeed, Aaron Douglas does an outstanding job playing an evil character who, at one point, organises a hit in a prison. The problem is, Marsh's whole storyline about pay for play only tangentially affects the Hellcats at all. It's like having Crabbe and Goyle as the main baddies in Harry Potter: sure, they're not top blokes, but you have to work hard to fit them in the plot.
Personally I think Marti's mum is the baddie in all of this. She does very little to help people and normally just makes the situation worse. In the end though, I just wound up hating everyone.
Location, location, location
Hellcats obviously has a pretty solid budget for their sets; and they want to use that budget. In fact, sometimes it feels like the realms of normality are sacrificed purely to fit in a strange new set. Take for example, the plot when the Hellcats get in an argument with a local, unknown band. To conclude the argument, the band invite the squad to their rehearsal space to perform.
The girls show up (in full costume, of course) to what appears to be a warehouse. Now I'll accept that maybe it's a space owned by one of the band's parents, but there is no explanation at all as to why the warehouse has a fairly complex lighting rig (which someone inexplicably operates) or a regulation-size spring-loaded cheerleading floor. Maybe this is just American culture, and it's a common occurrence for cheerleaders to pop over and practice a routine in front of you.
On the other side of the location coin, sometimes it seems like the show's producers forgot to build a set. In this situation, the group's favourite bar is pretty consistently used to fill in. Confidential and very personal meeting about a missing father? Meet me at the bar! My favourite is when Dan goes to his first class of film school and, rather than using Lancer's acres of educational real estate, they meet in the bar and awkwardly talk about cinematography surrounded by people trying to enjoy a quick pint.
All together now!
Hellcats stars Aly Michalka and Ashley Tisdale, who are both products of the Disney Channel. So it only seems right that there's a good old sing-song at least once an episode, right? Sometimes twice, if you're lucky. Of course, everyone in Lancer has a fantastic singing voice, despite the Glee-esque range of music covered. However, since this isn't a musical and the plot doesn't revolve around music like Glee does, the songs just don't really fit.
A musical highlight is the Toga Party held in episode 15, in which Lewis breaks into a rendition of The Isley Brothers' song Shout. This is as much a homage to National Lampoon's Animal House as Will.I.Am's music is "gently influenced" by the rest of the music industry. I imagine the script for the scene went something along the lines of:
Lewis takes the microphone and performs the scene from Animal House for five minutes.
Oh, I enjoyed it really. Hellcats has as many holes in it as a block of Emmental, and it's fun to rip on. But I love ripping on shows so that turned out just right. I wouldn't recommend it though. Go watch FlashForward instead. Now there's a show that deserved a second season.
Have you seen Hellcats and want to weigh in? Maybe you know another TV show I might enjoy ripping on? The discussion continues below!