My favorite new television show of the fall season is the CW’s Hellcats. This show is far, far better than its commercials would lead you to believe.

Hellcats stars Aly Michalka (of the Disney stable pop band Aly & A.J., and many, many Disney tweener shows and movies) and Ashley Tisdale (also of the Disney stable, from the High School Musical franchise.) The show is about a college cheerleading team, the Lancer Hellcats. It features cheer routines, lots of very, very attractive people in small clothes, and both bippy pop music and angsty pop music. The commercials look shallow, if not vapid.

Yet there’s more to the show than that.

Hellcats is set in a Southern town, a college town or minor city with not much going for it. Class distinctions are a prominent feature of the show, with lead character Marti (played by Aly) being a townie. Her working-class, inappropriate, intemperate, extremely kind and proud and embarrassing mother works at a college bar and grill. Her best friend Dan knows he’s not getting out of the town, and has a contempt born of jealousy for the college kids who are just passing through. Money — specifically the lack of it — is a major theme of the show. All the students are in fear of losing their scholarships, and the cheerleading team itself is in danger of cancellation. Budget cuts are everywhere.

Faith is another theme handled reasonably well, so far. Savannah (played by Tisdale) is from an extremely conservative Christian family, church, school, and college. Her family are portrayed as being intolerant of Savannah’s choices. But Savannah’s faith in and of itself is treated with respect. It’s an important part of her character that doesn’t make her stupid or bigoted. How common is it, in recent years, to see the complexity of Christian religious faith portrayed on television? I mean, outside of a documentary?

The show passes the Bechdel test with ease. Half the cast and half the characters are women, who talk to each other about a variety of issues.

I think about half the cast is comprised of people of color. There’s a lead African-American couple, the cheer coach and her doctor boyfriend. And there are two interracial couples in the works or being hinted at. In addition, people seem to date across class lines — but not painlessly. Money, religion, and race all exist in the world of Hellcats, and all cause problems from time to time.

The show is glib eye-candy, certainly. The cheerleaders are all really, really pretty people. But the insane work and athleticism of cheering is highlighted. None of these characters are vapid, none are coasting by. Every character is working their ass off to achieve important long-term goals. The entire show is character-driven, motivated by who these people are. And they are reasonably interesting.

The writing is aided by the fact that the actors are all solid. Aly and Ashley are not only better actors than their Disney origins might lead you to think, they have great chemistry with each other. (Enough chemistry to occasionally make me wonder what they are doing in their dorm room, but that’s a personal quirk of mine and nothing in the show points to a textual attraction.) In fact, Aly and Ashley have decent chemistry with everybody in the cast. The romantic tensions are believable, as are the rivalries. The supporting cast is good, especially D. B. Woodside as the team doctor, and Robbie Jones as Lewis Flynn.

My only, only complaint about Hellcats so far has to do with how I am viewing it. The CW streams episodes about four or five days after they air, which I appreciate. But each episode has five or more commercial breaks, each running five-to-seven commercials. The same ones. Each time. Which, honestly, I could tolerate better — I just play Echo Bazaar, or catch up on Twitter, during the breaks — if the streaming quality were any good. It’s not. It’s jerky, and small, and full of digital artifacts. Unfortunately, this is the only way I can watch it right now. But I am already looking forward to seeing Hellcats on dvd.

8 Responses

  1. I agree with this completely. So glad people have talked up the quality of the show because the advertising REALLY doesn’t show that.

    (Small nitpick, born out of Southern chauvinism — the show isn’t set in an unnamed college town but in Memphis, which is a good-sized city. I’ve never *been* there so I have no idea if it’s set in Memphis-but-filmed-in-Vancouver, but it is nominally Memphis. Hence the obsession with barbeque among other things. )

  2. Nice review. I’ll admit that I sometimes glaze over during the Coach/Doctor/Coach storyline but everything else is spot on. I particularly like Savannah’s storyline which is being handled in a way that we’re not used to seeing when it comes to Religion in Prime Time. This is fast moving from “guilty pleasure” to “interesting viewing”. Plus, you know, cheerleaders rockin’ it. I’m in awe of the athleticism!

  3. You know I love this show. And you do a great job of describing why this is so much better than the ads (or the app, by the by). I adore Aly and Marti but I have to say I love to see Ashley getting beyond Sharpay and Maddie (The Suite Life of Zac and Cody). Savannah is complicated. Wonderful!

  4. @Anika — I cracked up at “this is my first secular date” because I went to college with so many people from similar backgrounds. Breaking away from that really does take guts and it’s something I haven’t seen.

    Something else interesting — two new shows this fall (‘Hellcats’ and ‘Undercovers’) both feature an African-American couple who are apparently happy together, who have their relationship dynamic unsettled by the woman’s ex, a white man. I feel like that’s a racial dynamic I haven’t seen before (and would say so far it’s handled with a lot more thought here than on ‘Undercovers’). Not sure what if anything the significance is but it was something I noticed.

  5. @Caroline I missed that it’s Memphis! And it never LOOKS like that big of a city.

    Also, I recently had a conversation on Twitter that pointed out that people of color in relationships with other people of color, those relationships seem to end more often/faster than poc/white. (We were talking about comics, but it made me think.) I really hope that Coach/Doctor stands, and that Other Coach falls by the wayside.

  6. @Caroline&Sigrid : Eriq La Salle famously threatened to leave ER if they let Benton find happiness with Elizabeth after failing with a string of women of color. How about Other Coach gets together with Alice in scandal redux?

  7. Hellcats is filmed at UBC in Vancouver.

  8. @handyhunter Ha ha ha, that was a total guess.

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