The post-racial America of Hellcats; the posters for Nikita.

What you're watching.
Sept. 10 2010 9:04 PM

Hellcats and Nikita

One show offers a hip-thrusting vision of post-racial America, one show has nice posters.

Marti Perkins (Michalka) from Hellcats.

The teen-tempting CW was the first network out of the gate this fall season, launching two hour-long shows with relative bangs in terms of ratings and, in the matter of content, one yowl and one snarl. The former noise issues from Hellcats (Wednesdays at 9 p.m. ET), a juicy number about the newest and surliest member of a college cheer squad. The latter springs from Nikita (Thursdays at 9 p.m. ET), a streamlined action-drama about the sort of human killing machine for whom stiletto knives and stiletto heels are each essential weapons. Hellcats stars the lake-deep eyes and corrugated-steel abdominal muscles of one Aly Michalka. She plays Marti Perkins, whose tomboyish first name coordinates with her non-girly-girlish habits. Clutch your pearls: She rides her racing bike across the immaculate lawns of her college's quad, roguish as an extra in Quicksilver. A diligent pre-law student at Lancer University, Marti is a townie wearing a modest chip on her shoulder and black polish on her nails, among other cosmetic and sartorial indicators of her alterna-sentiments. Fingerless gloves; black motorcycle jacket; purple shoelaces; is that keffiyah I see? The layers lay her nonconformism on thick. Marti would have assembled her wardrobe at a thrift store, as opposed to a vintage shop, given her working-class roots. Her mother waits tables at the campus pub, and the show doesn't even need to bother explaining that her dad isn't in the picture, much less why. This nonjoiner seeks to join the ranks of basket-tossers and pom-pom-shakers after her scholarship evaporates and another available to "football groupies" beckons. First she shudders, then she shakes it. The heroine has a background in gymnastics and bones up on cheering by watching Bring It On, and her moves also suggest close study of Janet Jackson's "Rhythm Nation" video, sport aerobics, and especially Flashdance. She does the things they don't teach in class unless that class explicitly teaches a pole-dancing workout. An ongoing debate—recently revived when a federal judge ruled on the Title IX plan of Quinnipiac University—asks whether competitive cheering deserves to be classed as a varsity sport. Hellcats answers, "Yeah, totally," and further argues that backstabbing, undermining, and free-form bitchery deserve at least club-sport status. There is even the possibility that the show may do something interesting with a subtext that so far remains extremely sub: It takes us to the South and to a class-conscious frame of mind and then introduces a web of complicated relationships that the eye recognizes as cross-racial but the dialogue does not. For now, it seems that this is a tale of collegiate self-discovery and hand-spring liberation that just happens to be set in the post-racial America I keep hearing about it. Meanwhile, Nikita is set, a bit more plausibly, in the America of bikini-clad assassins and kidnapped dignitaries. Maggie Q (the fourth-best screen Maggie after Cheung, Smith, and Gyllenhaal) plays the fourth screen Nikita (after the feral naif played by Anne Parillaud in Luc Besson's original, the haunted athlete incarnated by Bridget Fonda in Point of No Return, and the haunting vamp immortalized by Peta Wilson on the USA Network). Upon first watching clips of the new show, I decided it was doomed as it fits a pattern established by the likes of Dollhouse and Bionic Woman, other series about brunettes controlled by clandestine organizations. Each of those earlier shows presented a vixen (lithe and lethal and attractively self-alienated) on whom I developed a completely embarrassing crush—only to see the show canceled too quickly and the heroine cruelly snatched away. Ms. Q's Nikita is only half so crush-worthy as Bionic Woman's Jaime Sommers or Dollhouse's what's-her-name, but her predicament is no less tasty. This is the first Nikita to turn actively against the people who abducted a promising young felon, taught her some manners, and trained her to kill. Three years after wriggling free of her clandestine organization, the character decides it's time to save the world from her power-drunk former handlers, going rogue in much the same spirit that Marti did in adding hip thrusts to the Hellcats' repertoire. Q gives the impression of trying to get things over in a businesslike fashion. In the action scenes, this is quite effective. In all other scenes, this is merely effective. It's as if she has made a choice to play the character with a pronounced detachment. Or perhaps, deciding to keep her bad acting low key, she has arrived at a decent approximation of bare competence, which is one way to do it, but what am I prattling about? As ubiquitous bus-shelter ads attest, Q looks confident holding a gun and is not averse to wearing either leather or lace, thus meeting the maximum requirements for the job.

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Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.



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