High School Musical: The Musical: The Series – Ep. 1 (First Impressions)

Now there’s a name I haven’t heard in a long time…

I know plenty of people my age (or just people in general) who scoff as High School Musical. Me though? I just don’t have it in me. I did in fact have a huge High School Musical phase growing up. I had the first movie recorded on a VHS tape so that I could keep rewatching it. I saw the second movie the day it premiered and saw the third one in theaters on opening weekend. I listened to the soundtracks so much to the point that my parents might regret buying those for me. Are those movies actually any good? It’s…debatable to say the least. The first one is maybe the least pulp (though I prefer the soundtracks and choreography of 2 and 3) but even that is by no means a masterpiece. But regardless of quality, I grew up with these movies, I’m nostalgic for them, and I do occasionally rewatch them from time to time. I could never truly dislike them. 

If I didn’t have any sort of attachment to these movies, I would not have tried High School Musical: The Musical: The Series (what a redundant title and I watch anime!).

At first, I was surprised to find out that this show exists but the more I think about it, the more the business behind it makes sense. It’s easy to forget but High School Musical was huge. It’s easily the one Disney Channel Original Movie people know of and if you want to talk numbers, the ratings for the first two movies were high and the third one did really well at the box office. At the time, High School Musical 2 was even the most-viewed telecast of all time. All things considered, this series was a real money maker for Disney during the mid-2000s. Sure, the peak has long since passed but the audience who first flocked to the series have also grown up so nostalgia is ripe for the taking. This is Disney we’re talking about. They’ll milk just about anything these days and with Star Wars on the decline and their well of animated films to remake running dry, of course something like High School Musical would be up for consideration.

What I find so odd then is how loosely this TV show connects with the movies. It’s neither a sequel, a remake, or a reboot. Rather, it’s a spin-off in which the movies are canonically works of fiction. The story takes place in a fictionalized version of East High School, the Salt Lake City-based school where the movies were primarily filmed at. The main characters are East High students participating in a school production of the High School Musical stage play which is based on the first movie. It’s all very meta; there’s no denying that.

I’d be fine with this being so meta except that there is barely anything clever about it. The most clever the show gets is the slight subversion with the characterization. Nini (Olivia Rodrigo) is slightly shy like Gabriella but is already into theater. E.J. (Matt Cornett) is a jock like Troy but is already into theater. Gina (Sofia Wylie) is basically Sharpay (but the actual role of Sharpay ends up going to a guy for a one-off joke). Ricky (Joshua Basset) doesn’t parallel anyone from the movies. All this is obvious stuff but it’s sadly the farthest the show goes with playing with its source material. The East High Setting boils down to a fun Easter egg and the narrative parallels to the movies are just that there’s a play going on and there’s romantic drama among the characters. The main reason characters or events from the movies are brought up is because the characters are going to perform the same story for their school play. 

Oh, they do play the original music. In Episode 1, you get to hear “Start of Something New” (three times in fact!). But you also hear the music without its narrative context and meaning. “Start of Something New” is sung not to mark the start of a romance akin to Troy and Gabriella’s but because that’s the song that’s being used for the auditions. Disney is obsessed with making callbacks but this TV show seems especially guilty of that. It really feels like High School Musical is brought up purely for the brand recognition; to constantly ask the viewer if they remember this thing they might’ve loved.

If anything, this show is more like Glee than High School Musical. An underutilized performing arts club led by a teacher who wants to see it revitalized. Teenagers who are passionate or at least participate in the performing arts and coincidentally can’t seem to get their love lives in order. You even have a Sue Sylvester-type character who opposes people pursuing the arts. There’s obviously some differences. The equivalent characters aren’t entirely the same. Mr. Mazzara (Mark St. Cyr), for example, severely lacks the same antagonistic motivation, cynicism, and charisma that made Sue Sylvester a great character. Since this is a Disney show, you most certainly won’t hear characters talking about sex. But for the most part, it feels like someone working for the Mouse saw Glee and wanted to emulate its success…four years after that show ended and long after its prime but that’s beside the point.

Does the show at least ape Glee well. I guess? The writing can get a bit grating at times. I frankly found Nini (Olivia Rodrigo) pretty annoying, whining about how Ricky (Joshua Bassett) broke her heart when she’s the one overreacting by hooking up with E.J. (Matt C Cornett) in four months. Ricky isn’t that much more likable, him auditioning for the play is a selfish means to get Nini back, but the guy is at least committed to fixing his mistakes. The cast themselves is fine though, far better actors than I expected and also very capable singers and/or dancers too.

Oddly enough though, the worst aspect of High School Musical: The Musical: The Series (how do I abbreviate this?) ends up being its most original decision: presenting itself as a mockumentary. Yes, the story is filmed like a documentary, complete with the characters giving interviews, something neither High School Musical or Glee did. I wouldn’t mind this but there is no context justifying the format and the execution isn’t grounded or diegetic. What documentary crew is going to professionally film a high school stage production? Who’s interviewing these kids at their homes? How is this crew recording the parts that are stylistic such as Nini’s imaginary sequence for her rendition of “Start of Something New”? The mockumentary approach is neither believable or consistent, resulting in a jarring experience.

I don’t know who High School Musical: The Musical: The Series (The Movie: The Game) is for. If you never watched and/or grew up with High School Musical, you have little incentive to watch this. If you have, the show just barely tickles however much nostalgia you have for the original movies. That is unless you are that easily swayed by the most basic and overt use of references (I’m personally not). I know it’s easy to call Disney’s recent slew of media a cash grab but it really is the case with this series. Just a musical series that happened to have a famous name slapped onto it because someone likes money.

Thanks for reading!

Watch High School Musical: The Musical: The Series on Disney+

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