Review

The fine 'Bella and the Bulldogs' mixes football, gender issues

Robert Lloyd
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Television Critic
TV review: The finely done 'Bella and the Bulldogs' stars Brec Bassinger as a cheerleader turned quarterback

In "Bella and the Bulldogs," which premieres Saturday on Nickelodeon, a Texas middle school cheerleader lives her dream when she becomes her football team's quarterback. It's an aspirational, multicultural, feminist tweencom with a laugh track — which is to say, really, that it is like most tweencoms — and perfectly fine.

Bella (Brec Bassinger) is invited to try out for the all-boy Silverado Bulldogs after a random display of throwing ability. Though Bella imagines, "Once they see what I can do they'll be totally cool with this," it will take them a double-length opening episode to come to their senses.

"I'm not quarterback anymore," wails predecessor Troy (Coy Stewart) down at the pizza place that is the show's designated hang. (Aguas frescas on the tables make a nice regional touch.) "Do you know what this means? I'm not 'The Troy.' I'm just a Troy. I can't live like that."

As is usually the case in such series, there has been care to be racially inclusive. Troy is African American; Bella's best friends are Latin American Sophie (Lilimar) and Asian American Pepper (Haley Tju). The team is the usual mix of cultural types, including a farm boy (Jackie Radinsky) who says things like, "Their defense is faster than a greased pig in a mudslide," and a delicate small person (Buddy Handleson) who, when Bella sprays perfume in the locker room, says, "It's got a very pleasing bouquet — is that a hint of lilac?"

If "Bella" breaks any new ground, within its context — it is, after all, on one level the thousandth variation on the "Bad News Bears" — it is in its upfront treatment of gender. ("Examination" would be too strong a word.) It's not merely that Bella must show herself tough enough to play with the boys — though she does, taking hit after hit in practice — but that the boys, who recoil at her suggestion that they bond by sharing their "hopes and fears," might learn something from her femininity.

It is not exactly radical; stereotypes are maintained even as they are gently mocked. Pepper frets that "you could get hurt, or worse — football uniforms are super unflattering" — though Bella wears her long hair fashionably outside her helmet. When Bella cries because she feels she has let down her friends, her coach says, "We take our feelings and we bury them deep inside, then we burn the map so we can't ever find them. That's what a man does." But it's understood that this is silly.

The word "concussion" is not once pronounced.

Twitter: @LATimesTVLloyd

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'Bella and the Bulldogs'

Where: Nickelodeon

When: 8 p.m. Saturday

Rating: TV-G (suitable for all ages)

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