Let’s reminisce about 2019. It was the last “good” year before COVID-19 where the “new normal” didn’t exist, just the “normal normal.” But, more relevant to our discussion, Olivia Rodrigo had not yet blown up, and she was only known by a select group of people watching “Bizaardvark” on Disney Channel. All of that began to change in November 2019 when Disney+ launched “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series,” which turned out to be a hit.
The series takes place in Salt Lake City, Utah at East High — the very same place where the beloved original “High School Musical” took place — and follows four main characters: talented singer Nini Salazar-Roberts (Olivia Rodrigo, “Bizaardvark”), her aloof ex-boyfriend, Ricky Bowen (Joshua Bassett, “Stuck in the Middle”), her more put-together current boyfriend, E.J. Caswell (Matt Cornett, “Z-O-M-B-I-E-S”) and the superstar, new girl on campus, Gina Porter (Sofia Wylie, “Andi Mack”). True to the show’s name, the drama department of East High puts on “High School Musical” in season one. A key plot point of the show is the love triangle between Nini, Ricky and E.J., which culminates in the first season’s finale when Nini and Ricky finally get back together. Season two was released on May 14, 2021 and follows the East High theater’s production of “Beauty and the Beast” (why they didn’t just do “High School Musical 2” is still a mystery to me). Likely due to her sudden rise to fame after the release of “Driver’s License” in January 2021, Olivia Rodrigo’s character takes much more of a back seat and is sent off to a fancy drama school early on in the season. Nini and Ricky break up again after they realize they may not be as compatible together as they once were, and Ricky enters into a new love triangle with Gina and E.J., resulting in Gina and E.J. dating by the season two finale.
Season three starts us off at a summer camp where Gina, E.J., Ricky and the rest of the East High theater kids are putting on a production of “Frozen.” Rodrigo’s character has been sent to California at this point and is now just a recurring character on the show (who can blame her though, really).
To be fair, this is a kid’s show on Disney+, and I definitely don’t watch it because it’s a “good,” award-worthy show. To be honest, the only reason I came back for season three was to see Rodrigo and her character’s development. I think many viewers of “HSMTMTS” are fans of Rodrigo and have probably watched it for similar reasons. Especially during season two, which was released one week before SOUR debuted, I constantly saw posts on social media correlating Olivia in “HSMTMTS” and songs off the album, as well as the Olivia Rodrigo/Joshua Bassett/Sabrina Carpenter drama.
The plot of the show is very generic; Each season as a whole operates under the same formula, just with a slightly bigger crisis, longer periods of panic and marginally more complicated resolutions. In my opinion, “HSMTMTS” relies on too many love triangles to move the story along and focuses primarily on romantic relationships between the leading characters. Overall, it’s very cheesy, but there isn’t really anything wrong with that. In fact, those sorts of tropes remind me of Disney Channel original shows of the 2000s and 2010s (think “Liv and Maddie”, “Girl Meets World” and “Wizards of Waverly Place”). Like some early Disney Channel shows, the dialogue between characters in “HSMTMTS” often resembles less how teenagers actually talk to each other and more how older generations think the younger generation communicates. The show constantly reinforces the ideas of friendship, love and support (which are all good things, don’t get me wrong), but it could do with some more subtlety. In the end, though, it is a Disney Channel show and it is made for younger teens, so can you really expect anything else? I may not be part of the target demographic now, but if I was in elementary or middle school, I bet the show would be one of my favorites.
Despite the show’s young intended audience, it still can be enjoyable to watch for college-aged kids and those who watched the original “High School Musical” growing up. The nostalgia factor from those movies can seriously set in, and of course, having one of Gen Z’s most famous rising stars on the show helps. Season three did cater slightly more to the older audience, bringing back “Hannah Montana” star Jason Earles as the summer camp director, Jesse Tyler Ferguson (“Modern Family”) as Nini’s biological dad and even Corbin Bleu (Chad in the original “High School Musical”) and JoJo Siwa (“Dance Moms”) make guest appearances.
The show makes some very engaging stylistic choices. Unlike the many series I watched on Disney Channel growing up, “HSMTMTS” uses confessionals where characters look and talk directly into the camera, similar to “Modern Family” or “The Office.” My favorite moment of the current season is when Ricky broke the fourth wall after making a comment about his character’s relationship with E.J.’s character in the musical.
“High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” has some good moments for the older audience to enjoy and is a fun watch if that’s what you’re looking for. Of course, it’s a kid’s show at the end of the day. As such, it is going to give you some secondhand embarrassment, but for the intended audience, it’s a good time. “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” gives today’s middle and elementary schoolers something to look forward to when they turn on the TV.
Daily Arts Writer Jenna Jaehnig can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.