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Television Review

Pretty routine, but that’s not all bad

From left: Heather Hemmens, Ashley Tisdale, and Alyson Michalka in “Hellcats.’’
From left: Heather Hemmens, Ashley Tisdale, and Alyson Michalka in “Hellcats.’’ (Sergei Bachlakov/The CW)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / September 8, 2010

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Every season, there’s a show or two or five that any self-respecting, “Wire’’-worshipping, script-scrutinizing TV critic isn’t supposed to like. My list of guilty pleasures has included “Gossip Girl,’’ “Celebrity Rehab,’’ and post-Las Vegas editions of “The Real World.’’

And the CW’s college-cheerleading series “Hellcats’’ could become one of my little secrets in the new season, if the folks in the writers’ room ever wake up.

Story-wise, the show, which premieres at 9 on Ch. 56, is awful — stock characters, nonsensical motivations, obvious plot turns, bad acting. While the likes of “Freaks and Geeks,’’ “Friday Night Lights,’’ and “Undeclared’’ have brought new facets to TV’s portraiture of high school and college, “Hellcats’’ ignores them with a “whatever’’ flip of the hair. The show is a naked attempt by the CW to lure the Disney Channel demo with cheesy girlfight melodrama and two Disney stars — Ashley Tisdale of “The Suite Life of Zack & Cody’’ and “High School Musical’’ and Alyson Michalka of “Phil of the Future.’’

Michalka plays a cynical student named Marti who mocks cheerleaders with her friend/maybe-lover Dan (Matt Barr). They’re townie hipsters. But when Marti needs to come up with college tuition money fast or drop out, she decides to go for a cheerleading scholarship and become what she scorns. She practices her moves while watching “Bring It On’’ at home, and voila — she rocks the cheerleading trials and gets on the team.

Now Marti must room with the cheerleading captain, Tisdale’s Savanna, a goodie-goodie who says things like “This gym is a no-negativity zone!’’ and “Did she just do a lay-out step-out?’’ And she has other dramas to contend with, including Dan’s disappointment, a football-player love interest, her mother’s alcoholism, and the bathroom the gals share with the guys. Can she make it all work?

It’s a terribly flat narrative, transmitting the message that we need to be willing to change and grow. As Marti’s working class mom who always embarrasses her daughter, Gail O’Grady is particularly off-key.

But I’m drawn to the cheerleading routines in “Hellcats,’’ uncool as that may be. The show wants to be like “Glee,’’ building story lines around music-and-dance-driven cheerleading sequences in each episode. And it succeeds, in that the routines — and the dynamic filming of them — are dazzling enough to distract from the surrounding lousiness. The ladies create all kinds of kaleidoscopic forms with their bodies. It’s really extraordinary. The “Hellcats’’ writers ought to take another look at “Glee,’’ with its strange and twisted character flourishes, and then learn the steps to a new cheer called Tossing Out the Cookie Cutter.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit www.boston.com/ae/tv/blog.

HELLCATS Starring: Alyson Michalka, Ashley Tisdale

On: the CW, Ch. 56

Time: Tonight, 9-10