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Welcome once again to our annual "first look" at the broadcast networks' offerings for the 2010-2011 season. Each day we'll walk you through one of the new series set to premiere next season (or one that didn't make the cut) and go over our initial impressions after viewing the pilot. Keep in mind that a lot can change from what's being screened right now - recasting, reshooting, etc. - but we still want to give you a heads up on what you should (and shouldn't) keep on your radar in the coming months. So enough of our rambling, on with the show!
[IMPORTANT NOTE: The following is based on the original sales presentation which was screened to us privately or supplied by a third party NOT an informational, not-for-review screener provided by the network in question.]
HELLCATS (The CW)
(written by Kevin Murphy; directed by Allan Arkush; TRT: 35:21)
The network's description: "HELLCATS is a coming-of-age story about Marti Perkins, a young, pre-law student at Lancer University in Memphis, Tennessee. Marti is cool, hip and alt, but her world flips upside down, literally and figuratively, when she loses her scholarship, and realizes the only way she can stay in school is by reigniting her dormant teen gymnastic skills to win a place on Lancer's legendary cheerleading team, The Hellcats. Against her every instinct, Marti goes for it and makes the squad, and is thrust into a world of camaraderie, backstabbing and the intersection of sports, backroom academia and big money. Marti's new roommate, Savannah Monroe, a petite, peppy Texan, is among the diverse cast of athletes, undergrads, family and friends, all set on the sprawling campus of a powerhouse college football program in the deep South. The series stars Aly Michalka as Marti Perkins, Ashley Tisdale as Savannah Monroe, Heather Hemmens as Alice Verdura, Robbie Jones as Lewis Flynn, Matt Barr as Dan Patch, with Sharon Leal as Vanessa Lodge and Gail O'Grady as Wanda Perkins. HELLCATS is from Bonanza Productions Inc. in association with Tom Welling Productions, Warner Bros. Television and CBS Television Studios with executive producers Kevin Murphy ("Desperate Housewives"), Tom Welling ("Smallville") and Allan Arkush ("Heroes," "Crossing Jordan"). The pilot was directed by Allan Arkush."
What did they leave out? The pilot was actually filmed as a presentation, meaning only the essential scenes were shot. Not making the cut in the screened version: Ben Browder's character, the school's football coach who has a history with Vanessa. It's believed that role is being recast.
The plot in a nutshell: "Lancer is a top-tier university," Marti Perkins (Aly Michalka) explains in the opening narration. "I couldn't afford it if I weren't on scholarship. And like all the big schools in the Deep South, it's powered by sports money. At Lancer, football is god. And where there's football, can cheerleaders be far behind?" And with that Marti and best pal/simmering crush Dan Patch (Matt Barr) resume their daily mocking of said "football groupies" as they practice in the quad. Marti however is shocked to witness one of them - Alice Verdura (Heather Hemmens) - fall during a stunt, injuring her wrist. She however has bigger problems, it seems the school is cutting scholarships for the children of its employees - her being one of them. And since her mom Wanda's (Gail O'Grady) job at a campus bar can't quite cover her tuition, Marti is on her own to find a means to stay at school.
Even worse, she doesn't qualify for any of the open scholarships, that is of course until she learns each member of the Hellcats has a full ride. And with Alice sidelined, emergency tryouts are being held for her replacement. Horrified at the prospect of becoming one of those she so openly mocks - not to mention her personal hatred of their captain, Savannah Monroe (Ashley Tisdale) - Marti nevertheless sucks it up and goes for it. You see, Marti used to be a gymnast and there's nothing she - and a montage sequence of her practicing, complete with cameo of her watching "Bring It On" - can't accomplish. Ultimately her raw-but-unrefined-talent wins over Vanessa Lodge (Sharon Leal), the coach of the Hellcats, and much to Marti's surprise, Savannah, who appreciates what she can bring to the team. But being a member of the Hellcats poses a new set of issues, whether it be having to move into their house, getting the stink eye from Alice for taking her spot or Dan's reaction (i.e. jealousy) over her newfound friendship with one of them, Lewis Flynn (Robbie Jones). Yup folks, cheerleading is a minefield.
What works: It's about as harmless as you'd expect from what's essentially "Bring It On: The Series." Watch the faux hipster clash with those darn peppy girls! And the wackiness that ensues when she has to become one of them! Sure not everything has to be "The Wire," but this one...
What doesn't: ...definitely could be more fun. All of Marti's problems are decidedly cliche - Alice steals Marti's clothes while she's in the shower! Dan is all about the ladies but Marti's secretly the only one for him! Marti and Savannah initially don't get along but - wait for it - eventually they do! And when their package is so decidedly familiar - like I said, "Hellcats" unabashedly embraces its "Bring It On" origins - it makes them all the more glaring. Even worse, its attempts to get at the chewy center of Marti's faux hard shell feel very limp - her mom used to get drunk and embarrass her, now she can't perform if she's there!
Throw in the show's weird obsession with Marti aggressively riding her bike from place to place (seriously there's at least three scenes in which she intensely rides somewhere) and the sometimes interminable cheerleading sections (watch the cast gyrate for two minutes!), and you have a lot of rocky points in the road. If anything though the show's major flaw is Marti's journey feels so very fake. Sure she talks the talk of the I'm-above-this-hipster but you never believe she's more than a wardrobe change away from becoming a member of the preppy sisterhood that she so openly mocks. Whether that's a result of Michalka's performance or the writing is anyone's guess, either way it's definitely a weak sell. At the end of the day though this is hardly a show targeted for me, nor one with any ambition beyond the obvious so...
The bottom line: ...you'll either think it's cute, harmless fun or be bored silly.