Thirteen years ago, High School Musical broke free from the crop of early-aughts Disney Channel originals and became something of a phenomenon, a clique-crossing tale of jocks and theater kids that launched Zac Efron into superstardom, a modern-day Romeo & Juliet but if Shakespeare swapped out the tragic double suicide for a catchy choreographed tune about putting aside your differences. For a very specific window of young-ish people, yours truly included, HSM is a potent nostalgia hit, which is what Disney+ is counting on when it returns to the title for High School Musical: The Musical: The Series. Luckily, like Cobra Kai before it, this incredibly-named new series arrives with a clever enough premise to justify bringing a familiar title out of the ol’ IP bin. This isn’t a direct follow-up to High School Musical, or its two in-universe sequels. This is a mockumentary set at the high school where the original was filmed, following a similarly star-crossed crew of teens putting on an anniversary performance of High School Musical directed by Miss Jenn (Kate Reinders), a back-up dancer from, you guessed it, High School Musical.
Most of the show works like gangbusters besides, funny enough, that mockumentary format, even though it’s obvious why Disney+ is into the idea. High School Musical: The Musical: The Series is hyper-focused toward The Youths, from the lingo, to the references, to every character having simply no choice but to stan. I was born in 1991 and this show made me feel roughly 10,000 years old; there’s a moment in episode 2 where someone pulls out a cell phone from 2006 and a high schooler asks if it’s a garage door opener. But, to cater to that same binge-hungry crowd, Disney+ needs its own The Office or Parks and Recreation, and this show replicates those comedies’ talking head segments, quick janky camera-zooms, and the occasional wide-eyed look toward the camera. But it almost feels like the show would be better off as a straight comedy, because it is often genuinely funny, and the mockumentary trappings are a distraction from the work this talented cast is putting on.
And, make no mistake, this is a freaking talented cast of kids. (Disney has never had a problem in that department. Thanks for Ryan Gosling, and Keri Russell, and Britney Spears, and…) Olivia Rodrigo leads the way as Nini, a permanent chorus-member who finally lands a lead role thanks to a dynamite audition version of HSM tune “Star of Something New”. Joshua Bassett fills the Efron role as Ricky, a non-theater kid who nevertheless nabs the starring role in an attempt to win back Nini, who dumped him after a disastrous unrequited “I love you” situation. Love triangles and catty jealous understudies abound, and the leads are overflowing with charm. I wish the equally endearing cast of characters around them weren’t so one-note in that weird, stereotype-heavy pattern that too many kids shows fall into. The glaring bright spot in the ensemble is Julia Lester as Ashlyn, the awkward girl cast to play Ms. Darbus, who has a killer comedic timing and one heck of a pair of pipes, which we hear on display in an original episode 2 duet with Nini.
I’ve only seen those first two episodes, but I hope going forward the show leans more on those original tunes. Relying too heavily on the old High School Musical soundtrack transforms the show into karaoke—really, really well-performed karaoke, but still—and dips dangerously close to being more Glee-ful than intended. There’s also that same uncomfortable feeling of forced advertising synergy, like the time Netflix’s Haunting of Hill House casually mentioned Netflix’s Daredevil. I’m well aware the three High School Musical movies will also be available to stream on Disney+.
But overall, High School Musical: The Musical: The Series is as charming and endearingly tongue-in-cheek as that title would suggest. It mostly exists in that sweet spot between pure empty nostalgia and something completely new, a series that hits you with those sense memories from a simpler time while, once or twice an episode, reaching high notes all its own.
Rating: ★★★ Good — Proceed with cautious optimism.
High School Musical: The Musical: The Series debuts on Disney+ on November 12.