High School Musical: The Musical: The Series’ Final Season Is a Bittersweet End

Once a Wildcat, always a Wildcat

TV Reviews high school musical: the musical: the series
High School Musical: The Musical: The Series’ Final Season Is a Bittersweet End

Summer at Camp Shallow Lake has long been over, and it’s finally senior year at East High in High School Musical: The Musical: The Series‘ fourth season: college applications are due, and relationships must be re-evaluated (are they worthy of long-distance status, or not?). But against all odds, the show must go on. 

Is it a crime to admit that I have only watched the first High School Musical movie once, and none of the others? Despite this, I’m a dedicated viewer of the iconic DCOM (Disney Channel Original Movie, for those of you who aren’t in The Know) spin-off, High School Musical: The Musical: The Series. Try saying that five times fast. After a good run on Disney+, the series is returning for a fourth and final season. 

Season 4 sees our beloved, overlarge cast of characters face a challenge like they have never faced before (and yet, it seems as though every season is a new, insurmountable, musical challenge). The East High theatre kids plan to put on a production of High School Musical 3: Senior Year, but their plans are thwarted when it’s announced that Disney will be filming a long-awaited High School Musical 4: The Reunion on-site at the high school. It’s all very meta. 

The crossovers between real life and fiction were fun in the first season or two. The references to HSM lore and cameos from real celebs felt like a clever, wink-wink, nudge-nudge. If you were well-versed enough in the universe to catch everything, it was a funny inside joke. If you weren’t a long-time HSM fan and were only familiar with the show, missing the punchline here and there wasn’t a big deal. Yet as we near drawing the red velvet curtains closed, it feels more like Disney, as a separate entity, is refusing to let go. 

The original cast (of HSMTMTS, that is) is phenomenal enough to stand on their own, not needing anything extra to bolster their talents and draw an already-eager audience in. The relationship drama between Ricky (Joshua Bassett), Gina (Sofia Wylie), and Nini (Olivia Rodrigo) never felt too contrived. Unexpected actors broke through the Disney mold to prove they could hold their own, even if they weren’t part of the “Core Four” (which includes Matt Cornett as E.J., our last player in the love… square). 

In past seasons, everyone was granted their moment to shine, a rare thing among such a large array of characters. We were made to truly care for each and every one of them. I wanted more familial bonding between Ashlyn (Julia Lester) and E.J. My favorite couple wasn’t Nini and Ricky or Gina and E.J., but rather Seb (Joe Serafini) and Carlos (Frankie A. Rodriguez). Kourtney (Dara Renee) quickly went from being more than Nini’s BFF as she showed she was just as talented as the rest, despite being severely underestimated initially. 

This season admittedly feels like an outright money grab and blatant nostalgia play—Disney milking the cash cow for all it’s worth. The show worked well enough on its own without the addition of original HSM alum, like Corbin Bleu (Chad) and Lucas Grabeel (Ryan), to name but a few who appear in these last episodes. Season 4 tries to juggle too much at once; where its several storylines once felt like just enough to balance, there is now too much to follow. It quickly became bloated; a sinking ship, misfortuned by its own overconsumption of its impressive roster. 

Another character, Mack (played by Matthew Sato), is introduced as if there weren’t already enough Wildcats to go around. Mack is meant to tease a little tension into the Ricky and Gina storyline… again, as if there hasn’t already been enough of that in the past three seasons. Ricky and Gina have fabulous chemistry*, and Bassett and Wylie are wickedly talented, so I get it: this is high school. Relationships are far from simple. But we have spent the past four years dancing around a “Will they, won’t they,” each time thinking we’ve ended up at the finish line, only for the miscommunication trope to rear its ugly head, slapping us right back to where we started. 

(*I have a confession to make: E.J. and Gina forever. In spite of the clear chemistry between Ricky and Gina, nothing can ever compare to the connection between Gina Porter and E.J. Caswell—who, by the way, has hands-down undergone some of the best character development in the series.)

The new songs are solid and reminiscent of Season 1—more heartfelt, more authentic, and more acoustic. It’s the return of Bassett sitting on a wooden bleacher, strumming his guitar and singing his heart out to the girl he likes. (Somehow, it’s not nearly as annoying as it is in real life; maybe Ken should take some pointers for his next rendition of “Push.”) The stakes may be higher—one might argue the highest, with the O.G. HSM cast there—but the big numbers aren’t as flashy, and there’s not so much song-and-dance about sabotage and heartbreak as there are lyrics about how they will miss each other when they’re gone. 

For all the chaos of the dozens upon dozens of cast members we’re meant to keep up with, it’s enjoyable nonetheless. Of the main characters we were introduced to in Season 1, there isn’t a bad apple among them. The strength of the (platonic!) relationships that have soldiered on since day one is what keeps audiences coming back. Theatre kids may get a bad rap in the real world, but there are no Rachel Berry types to be found here. It’s extremely nostalgic to finally see our faves reap the benefits of all the insanely hard work they have been putting in, both physically and mentally, over the past several years; seeing where everyone ends up is bittersweet. We’re happy for them, but we hate to see them go. 

I only wish Sharpay Evans could have made her much-deserved comeback. 

All episodes of High School Musical: The Musical: The Series Season 4 premiere Wednesday, August 9th on Disney+. 

Gillian Bennett is a writer and editor who has been featured in Strike Magazine, Her Campus, and now Paste Magazine. She enjoys watching copious reruns of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and fantasizing about living in London. You can find more of her neverending inner monologue and online diary on her Twitter or her blog.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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