High School Musical: The Musical: The Series Is a Slyly Self-Aware Work of Vertically Integrated Genius
A joyous and clever DCOM expansion that also cravenly game the creative algorithms of Disney’s ever-expanding pop culture footprintPhoto Courtesy of Disney TV Reviews Disney
High School Musical: The Musical: The Series.
High School Musical.
What a title to launch one of the flagship series of a new streaming platform with! To crib the rhythm of a waning TikTok trend: Does it flaunt the platform’s corporate reach(™)? Yes. Is it unwieldy as hell? YES. Who’s ready to crown it a self-aware heavyweight champ? Me! Is that because this Disney+ defining teen series is coming out of the gate so extremely self-aware that it blazes right past the meta event horizon that would incinerate all other attempts at such a vertically integrated creative experiment, rolling instead to a victorious stop in the land of what I am, of this moment, going to be calling post-cringe? Ah! (Translation: Yes.)
This might feel like an extreme start to what should be a simple review, but l will tell you right now: High School Musical: The Musical: The Series—which boasts Tim Federle, one of the contemporary YA/kidlit world’s funniest, most musical-savvy voices, as showrunner—is built for extremes. For the viewers who its most minute details are precision-engineered to attract (hello!), it will feel almost eerie in its self-aware, winking perfection. For those who aren’t already in the center of the mega Disney-Freeform-ABC-DCOM venn diagram that High School Musical: The Musical: The Series so ecstatically occupies, that same self-congratulatory cleverness is likely to come off as shudder-inducing corporate smarm.
No review, no matter how specific its positive critical analysis, is going to win over that second group, so this is the point at which I’m going to stop writing for them. Starting November 12th, High School Musical: The Musical: The Series will be available for every curmudgeon willing to shell out for a Disney+ subscription to take on themselves. From here on out, I’m just going to be writing for the DCOM diehards, because HELL yeah, diehards! High School Musical: The Musical: The Series is everything you would hope it would be and more—including, as the first few minutes of the first episode makes clear, the fact that these Disney+ teens? Well, they don’t quite fuck, but, going way beyond what they’d ever get to do on Disney Channel proper, they do f%!#.
But let’s back up. Before there was the extremely meta High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, there was, obviously, the already plenty meta DCOM (Disney Channel Original Movie), High School Musical. As DCOM diehards know full well, the original High School Musical, which starred Vanessa Hudgens as “freak genius” Gabriella Montez and Zac Efron as soft boi basketball star Troy Bolton, is an exceedingly goofy movie (not to be confused with the 1995 animated classic, A Goofy Movie, also a Disney property), and High School Musical: The Musical: The Series plays into that legacy with glee (not to be confused with Glee, Ryan Murphy’s long-running high school musical dramedy series that informs the sensibility of this new series, but also, as a 20th Century Fox Television property originally, it now too belongs to Disney).
High School Musical, the DCOM, famously subverts its own titular conceit by giving its DCOM audience a movie (which is actually a musical), about two teens breaking free from stereotypes to be part of their high school’s musical, which actually never happens. (The climax of the film ends at the callback part of the audition process.) High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, which follows the fictional students of the fictional version of the real Salt Lake area high school where the real High School Musical was filmed, as they embark on staging the first production of the fictional High School Musical: The Musical at the real (that is, fictional) East High—if your brain’s not broken yet, then I suspect you’re already doubled over with how chaotically genius this is—follows the DCOM’s subversive footsteps all the way down.
Mapping its lead Gen-Z characters loosely to the DCOM’s less-woke Millennial archetypes, High School Musical: The Musical: The Series stars Olivia Rodrigo (from Bizaardvark, an under-appreciated Disney Channel sitcom that has the unfortunate distinction of having suffered both for including Jake Paul in its original cast, and for having had to evict Jake Paul before its final season) as the always-an-understudy-never-the-lead Nini, who gets tapped for the role of Gabriella over the mega talented, always-the-lead transfer student Gina (Sophia Wylie, late of our beloved Andi Mack). So far, so High School Musical. Echoing HSM’s insecure diva, Sharpay, Gina gets stuck as Nini’s understudy, and finds herself having to scheme with Nini’s double-threat jock/drama nerd boyfriend, EJ (Matt Cornett), to find a way to untangle the weird emotional web the school’s new overly invested drama teacher (Kate Reinders) has woven by making the “inspired” creative decision to cast Nini’s lovelorn skater ex Ricky (Joshua Bassett) as a rather unconvincing Troy.
As Ricky’s weird best friend Big Red (Larry Saperstein)—who, not incidentally, drops the first hell of the series in the premiere’s opening minutes—puts it after the cast’s first disastrous read-through, “What could possibly go RIGHT?”
All this convoluted high school drama-meets-movie musical plotting is fun, but it’s not really what will catch the discerning Disney Channel fan’s eye. That distinction goes to all the details woven between the lines: There’s Big Red’s hell bomb, of course, which works as a coruscating flare alerting viewers to the fact that Disney+ is not the Disney of your DCOM childhood. (That is, it f***s.) In case you miss that flare, there’s Nini’s best friend, Kourtney (Dara Renee), whose first move in the pilot is to vocally appreciate the hot shirtless dude Nini suggests making her phone’s home screen, and whose second move is shutting down an interrupting Big Red with a passionate, “No, YOU stay out of it! I’m dismantling the patriarchy this year and you do not want me to start with you!” There’s also Miss Jenn’s addition of a kiss to the musical script (“The [original] kiss ended up on the cutting room floor. A little racy for the time,” she tells a protesting Nini in the second episode), the casting of a boy named Sab (Joe Serafini) as Sharpay (Ashley Tisdale’s role in the original), and most notably, the uncomplicated addition of Michelle Noh and Nicole Sullivan as Nini’s gay moms, just rocketing Disney+ right past the landmark same-sex hand-holding scene so hard won by Andi Mack on Disney Channel proper just this year. And that’s saying nothing of the surfeit of utterly bananas dialogue like, “Don’t underestimate me, I come from strong stock. My mother bounced back from an autopsy.” I mean!
Undergirding all of this trailblazing weirdness is the show’s format, which blends the handheld shaky cam footage and talking head sidebars of an Office-style mockumentary when telling the present-day story, and a more traditional scripted teen dramedy feel for the flashbacks (think MTV’s Faking It) that focus on Nini and Ricky’s past relationship. The shakiness of the mockumentary style comes on a bit too strong, at least in the two episodes provided for review (High School Musical: The Musical: The Series: extreme in all things!), but it does provide an effective visual marker between the two narrative modes. And anyway, insofar as there’s no reasonable way for everything that’s shot on shaky cam in the present-day story (at all hours, in minors’ homes and bedrooms without adults present) to have been caught by actual documentary filmographers, the extremity of that mockumentary style also underscores that it’s just that—a style. Much as High School Musical, the DCOM, was structured like a musical without actually containing a musical, High School Musical: The Musical: The Series appears to be structured like a mockumentary, without actually containing a mockumentary. (Although, this show being cheeky in all things, the credits do feature real behind-the-scenes documentary footage of the very talented dance crew messing around on the real fictional East High’s big stage.)
All of this very clever manipulation of both form and subject aside, High School Musical: The Musical: The Series is just damn fun to watch. It knows its earnestness can be very silly, and leans hard into taking loving shots at that earnestness—Miss Jenn’s reverence for a certain prop from the DCOM being one especially notable example. It also has a gigantically propulsive marching-band-meets-theater-piano soundtrack, with drumline-forward end credits that will be especially appreciated by jonesing Jane the Virgin fans, as well as a raft of extremely talented teen actors—not just in the leads, though they are very good, but in meaty supporting roles like Miss Jenn’s ultra-confident choreography assistant, Carlos (Frankie E. Rodriguez), and EJ’s piano-playing cousin, Ashlyn (Julia Lester), both of whose natural comedic energy just leaps off the screen.
All that said, while I did promise earlier in this review that I wasn’t going to write anything more for the dug-in Disney curmudgeons, I’m going to take that back. Because here’s the thing: The corporate behemoth that Disney has become is literally the only operation in town that could produce something as vertically integrated and as a richly and winkingly self-referential as High School Musical: The Musical: The Series. And for all that it’s both fun and fascinating to see the company use its new Disney+ platform to send up its own fairly conservative cable television past, the fact remains that turning the creative ecosystem into such a Disney-fied monoculture isn’t, you know, great. There is cultural/moral knot at the heart of Disney+ being able to pull off something like High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, and it is important for critical voices to pick at it.
And, I will. Just… after I watch High School Musical: The Musical: The Series enough times to have it memorized.
High School Musical: The Musical: The Series will be available on Disney+ starting on November 12th. The first episode, “The Audition,” will air on Freeform and ABC on Friday, November 8th at 8 p.m.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.
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