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Sweet, cheesy charm makes ‘Hellcats’ a guilty pleasure

You may not have noticed given the glut of reality shows, but we’re living in a golden age of television. Cable channels are consistently churning out dynamic, groundbreaking programming like never before. But even a steady diet of filet mignon gets old.

Sometimes you need a little cheese. Occasionally some Cheez. And, every once in a while, some processed cheeselike food substance, preferably in a can.

I spent a semester studying in England, and despite all the art and theater, all the centuries-old landmarks, one of my fondest memories is of being holed up in a London hotel for an afternoon of “Baywatch.”

But while nothing has truly filled that guilty-pleasure hole in my life since The Hoff hung up his board shorts, at least the cheerleading drama “Hellcats” (9 p.m. Tuesdays, KVCW-TV, Channel 33) is giving it the old college try.

I freely admit to watching more of The CW than any grown man should. Truth be told, I watch more than most grown women should. But “Supernatural” (9 p.m. Fridays) and “Nikita” (9 p.m. Thursdays) are solid, underappreciated genre shows, and “The Vampire Diaries” (8 p.m. Thursdays) is just full-on bat-excrement crazy.

“Hellcats,” though, is unintentionally flirting with camp greatness. All it’s missing is a good stalker, an eating disorder and the return of a character everyone thought was dead. If its writers could somehow cover all that with one actress, I’d dedicate one of my TVs to playing the show on a 24-hour loop.

The series, like its heroine, comes from humble beginnings. When “Hellcats” debuted in September, it was the simple if utterly implausible story of Marti Perkins (Aly Michalka), a wrong-side-of-the-tracks pre-law student at Memphis’ elite Lancer University who had a clearly defined dream: “I’m going to graduate, pass the bar up north and work in a DA’s office where everybody talks in flat Yankee vowels.” (Most episodes begin with a recap of that odd declaration, and it has rattled around in my head to the point that I want to start a band, just so I can name it Flat Yankee Vowels.)

But when Marti lost her financial aid, she reasoned that the only way she could remain in school — the singular solution to her money woes, despite all the student loans, work studies and grants that should be available to her — was the scholarship that comes with winning a spot on her school’s ultra-competitive, nationally recognized cheerleading squad. Why should the fact that she’d never cheered stand in her way?

Of course, Marti beat out dozens of experienced cheerleaders for the one available opening, primarily through the sheer force of her will — and the sort of dancing that’s more accustomed to having dollar bills thrown at it.

Still, “Hellcats” was a fairly standard teen drama. Only with more skin. Lots more skin.

Marti has found herself half-naked in make-out sessions with both jock-turned-cheerleader love interest Lewis (Robbie Jones) and townie best friend Dan (Matt Barr). She ended up fully naked — discreetly filmed, naturally — when scheming, bad girl Alice (Heather Hemmens) stole her clothes and towel in the shower. And the squad played flag football against the volleyball team with the losers having to cheer for the winners in their underwear.

I get it. Michalka looks like something a lonely art student would doodle on a Friday night — only here she’s not astride a flying dragon. And someone on the “Hellcats” staff makes certain to dress her in as little as possible. (“Nobody puts Marti’s midriff in a corner!”)

But the episodes were starting to feel like they would eventually lead to a series of court-mandated introductions to my neighbors. (Rest assured: So as to avoid the type of ginned-up controversy that has entangled MTV’s “Skins,” all the actors are, and seem to be playing, at least 21.)

The first sign that something special might be going on, though, came in the form of Marti’s roommate, cheer captain Savannah (Michalka’s fellow Disney refugee Ashley Tisdale), a laughably proper Christian girl who comes from a world of “squares” and “sad sacks” as though she were raised in an Archie comic. At one point, Savannah pretended to be a bad girl by proclaiming, “I’m really into irony these days.” Mothers, hide your sons!

Soon, the “Hellcats” writers started grafting some third-rate Grisham on top of their scripts, so that when Marti isn’t trying to forget her guy trouble with the help of a hoedown, a cowboy hat and a leather bustier, she’s determined to help free an inmate (Ben Cotton) framed for a robbery in a cover-up that leads all the way to the university’s villainous athletic director (Aaron Douglas).

The mere fact that “Hellcats” has a “villainous athletic director” only adds to its goofy charm. Heck, even a recent wannabe date rapist was given the impossibly Southern moniker Petey Lee Beauregard. How adorable is that?

When it isn’t trying to be a legal thriller, “Hellcats” goes after the “Glee” crowd by occasionally having its cast members sing. They’ve also been known to shake what the good Lord — and, presumably, some of the finest surgeons in Beverly Hills — gave ’em in elaborate, out-of-left-field dance numbers.

Tack on more cattiness than a dozen “Real Housewives” reunions, and it seems like “Hellcats” doesn’t know what it wants to be.

But it’s becoming increasingly clear what it can be: sweet, delicious processed cheeselike food substance. In a can.

Christopher Lawrence’s Life on the Couch column appears on Sundays. E-mail him at clawrence@ reviewjournal.com.

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