The cheerleader’s reputation on American TV is lousy. They’re insular and stuck up at best; slutty and the meanest of mean girls at worst. But with Heroes and Glee having put a new spin on the old (dance) routine, the pom-pom faction has begun to take back the fight.

Enter Hellcats, which has just begun screening on Vuzu, Wednesdays at 9.30pm.

Executive-produced by Smallville star Tom Welling, the series is based on the book Cheer: Inside the Secret World of College Cheerleaders by journalist Kate Torgovnick. It centres on Marti Perkins (Alyson Michalka), a pre-law college student from the wrong side of the tracks who has lost her scholarship because of budget cutbacks and the irresponsibility of her mother (Gail O’Grady).

It’s a surprisingly sweet look at the Lancer University cheerleading squad, which has just been invaded by this sneering outsider, Marti. She calls them “happy little cult members” – her buddy Dan (Matt Barr) adds, “I don’t trust any culture that builds pyramids” – but cheerleading is the only thing that can save her scholarship since her original funds have been cancelled.

A few viewings of Bring It On later, and she’s not only wowing the judges at tryouts, at her first practice she’s schooling the girls.

Yes, audiences should beware not to let their eyes roll too far back in their heads at the fantasy concept of a) swopping scholarships mid-semester and b) a protagonist who wows everyone in sight (known as the “Mary Sue” character in fan fiction parlance). But once the concept is firmly established, Hellcats makes a graceful backflip, with multilayered characters that defy expectations.

The show has a great soundtrack and while lead actresses Alyson Michalka and High School Musical alumna – actress-singer Ashley Tisdale, turned down the idea of singing on the show when asked, Alyson does sing in the fourth episode. In addition to that, Alyson’s band 78violet recorded the song Belong Here, which is the theme song for Hellcats.

Ashley plays Savannah, the peppy and fiercely intense captain of the Hellcats who, after an initial clash with Marti, realises that she just might be the godsend the Hellcats need to win the championship.

Savannah gives a blistering defence of cheerleading as a sport to Marti, but is also honest about wanting her to do well on the team.

Marti’s new compatriots also include admiring male cheerleader Lewis (Robbie Jones), who is flirtatious but kind.

“Don’t drift,” Dan cautions Marti once she seems to accept that there’s more to these “cult” members than she thought, but of course she will.

There’s a certain thrill in watching the outsider taken in and made a part of the family, rather than converting everyone else to her cause, and Hellcats promises plenty of creative push-pull in episodes to come.

It would have been easy to turn this show into a hair-pulling, claws-out bitch fest – heck, with that title, it’s almost false advertising not to. But while there’s plenty of nastiness, soap opera antics and titillation (plus lingering camera shots of Marti’s smokin’ bod) going on, Hellcats stacks up well against expectations. Three cheers.

l Get to know your cheerleaders: Marti is the protagonist of the series and a townie from Memphis, Tennessee. Described as “wicked smart”, she is a pre-law student at Lancer University. Her mother, Wanda Perkins, works at the university pub and is a party girl who never grew up. Her mother’s behaviour is, for the most part, an embarrassment to Marti.

Savannah Monroe the captain of the Hellcats, is described as “peppy and petite” with a “fierce intensity”. She votes for Marti when the team has auditions for a new flyer. Savannah is from a very religious southern family. After a fight with her family, she left the university she was attending, Memphis Christian, and transferred to secular Lancer.

Her sister Charlotte ( Emma Lahana), is the captain of the Cyclones, the cheerleading team at Savannah’s old school and a Hellcats rival.

Alice (Heather Hemmens) is dangerously narcissistic and after she injures her wrist, she dislikes the idea of Marti replacing her on the squad, or the attention Marti receives from her ex-boyfriend, Lewis Flynn.

Lewis is one of the Hellcats’ bases and is an easygoing guy who has a love for action. – Reuters & Wikipedia