When you’re in high school, every moment feels make-or-break for the rest of your life. Whether it’s first love, first heartbreak, first failure, or your first big moment in the spotlight, those teenage years are rife with drama and the weight of expectation — especially when you’re in the theater, darling.
Encore!, the new Disney+ reality series from producer Kristen Bell takes a look back on those halcyon days through the perspective of adulthood and (variable) maturity by rounding up groups of ex-theater kids putting them back on stage for an encore performance of the musicals they performed in school. It’s a brilliant concept for a reality show. Encore! stages a high school reunion under the spotlight, recruiting the leading actors to reprise the parts they played in their high school musical (and no doubt, this series is trying to net viewers who are fans of those Disney Channel movies with this as much as their High School Musical: The Musical: The Series.)
So how does that extremely clever concept stack up in execution? Well, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. The series devotes just one hour-long episode to each group of alumni and their production, which they have to re-learn and perform in just five days. As anyone who’s ever mounted a large-scale musical production can tell you, that’s one heck of a feat on one brutal timeline, and the insanity of trying to mount a stage show in less than a week can make for some peak reality tv dramatics. Fortunately, Encore! brings in big-name Broadway and Off-Broadway professionals to help them out, including directors, musical directors, choreographers, and an ensemble of pro actors to fill out the chorus. It all sounds great on paper, but by limiting each group’s runtime to an hour, they also limit their access to the depth they seem to be striving for.
Encore! seems to fancy itself something of a Queer Eye for theater kids, an opportunity to lift these people up by getting them back in touch with their teenage passions. But the Netflix counterpart thrives on a spectacular tonal balance; the guests on Queer Eye often bring heart-wrenching and lord knows the show can bring more than a few tears to your eye, but the content itself feels light-hearted, uplifting and affirming.
Encore! has moments that sing, especially an Episode 2 highlight when theater legend Susan Egan, who originated the role of Belle on Broadway, shows up to mentor the performers and they appropriately freak out. It’s pure theater nerd delight, and Egan comes packing the kind of legit-as-hell advice and character insights you can only get from a gifted professional of her caliber. In just a few minutes of screen time, her appearance points to the best of what Encore! could become; a legitimately revelatory look at the actor’s process and how it can heal. Unfortunately, those moments are far too rare. And for those hoping that Encore! will fill the Kristen Bell-shaped hole in your heart when The Good Place goes off the air — bad news, she’s barely in it. Bell appears in pre-recorded introductions at the beginning of the episodes, and makes a brief appearance at the tail end of the first episode. She doesn’t meet the cast of Episode 2 at all.
Instead, the series focuses largely on the drama of trying to go home again. As you’d probably expect, heading back to your high school hunting grounds comes with a lot of repressed emotions, even for the folks who found happiness in their adult life. But the way it’s handled has a strange, bleak flourish for a supposedly family-friendly Disney show. Because the fact is that none of these kids made it. They had big dreams and those dreams didn’t come true. That’s actually deeply sad at moments and Encore! seems to revel in thrusting them back into the intensity of their teenage emotions, back to the time when they believed in those dreams, but it never really provides any catharsis for those revelations.
That fascinatingly dark undercurrent bubbles up in both of the episodes provided to the press, but especially Episode 2. The first episode, perhaps because the returning castmates of a 1996 production of Annie are older and more distant from the heartbreaks of their youth, is mostly harmless. But still, there are odd moments, like the cocky leading man who doesn’t want to shave his head for the role of Daddy Warbucks even though his hair is alright a super-tight buzz cut. Surprise (well, not a huge surprise if you’re paying attention to his confessionals,) he doesn’t want to shave his head because it reminds him of how he looked and felt when he had life-threatening cancer as a teenager. The show thrusts him up against his horrifyingly early-life confrontation with his mortality and then moves on to the next song and dance almost immediately, barely giving him, or the audience, time to process the pitch-black reveal.
If that sounds unexpectedly grim for a Disney production, by contrast, the second episode is absolutely wild. Reuniting the castmembers of a 2017 staging of Beauty and the Beast, the drama and trauma feels palpably raw, and each little twist of the knife speeds by with the self-life of a high school relationship with your backstage makeout buddy. That’s just one of the dug up gems of high school gossip in the episode, which also puts a fleeting spotlight on a pair of exes who had a bad breakup at the end of high school.
In a particularly brutal moment, the director asks the performers to do an acting exercise that brings them closer, not to their characters, but their seventeen-year-old selves. “Sorry, but you will not outgrow your personality,” says the young woman who, long ago, got cast as Mrs. Potts when she so desperately wanted to play Belle. Her struggle to accept her casting goes hand-in-hand with her struggle to accept herself in life, but Encore! merely highlights it without offering a resolution.
When that same young woman gets her palm read by the guy she casually dated in high school, he tells her she’s probably not in her best health. Later in the episode, she has an allergic reaction during her first costume fitting back as Mrs. Potts and winds up shuttling away solo in an ambulance — something that takes on an even more bizarre and vaguely sinister quality when you remember he’s a mentalist, and thus, an expert in the power of suggestion. Just one of many strange, wild details waiting in this almost-there, would-be feel-good reality show,
That’s not to say that Encore! is a mean-spirited show, at least I don’t think it means to be. It comes back to that tonal balance and limited episode time. Encore! just tries to do too much with too little, and the cost is a presentation that lacks tact and a convincing sense of empathy. In fact, instead of feeling like an uplifting life-changer via the power of theater and performance, it occasionally feels like an accidental piece of scathing self-satire about the psychological cost of theatrical competition, the trope of self-loathing performers, and the ruthlessness of the “show must go on” mentality.
That’s also not to say the show is bad. It’s not. It’s entertaining, and more than that, it’s fascinating for the ways it misfires into such unintentionally dark moments. And there’s no denying the appeal of the core concept. It’s genuinely interesting to see these people come back together, and the feat of staging a five-day musical makes for plenty of great drama in its own right.
There’s so much potential at work here that could take off with a few key tweaks. I spent almost a decade of my life in various theater schools and local productions, and couldn’t agree more with the series overall investment in the transformative and emotionally cathartic power of the experience. However, without the time to properly investigate the pitch-black issues it’s tapping into, nor the focus on how the thrill of pulling off the big show affects the performers’ lives, Encore! never fully taps into that power, even with all its kooky charms.
Encore! is now streaming on Disney+ with new episodes airing every Friday. For more, be sure to check out our complete guide to every movie and TV show confirmed for the streaming service.