Disney+ does kids shows well with ‘High School Musical: The Musical: The Series’

Let’s remember 2019. It was the last “good” year before COVID-19 where the “new normal” didn’t exist, just the “normal normal”. But, more relevant to our discussion, Olivia Rodrigo hadn’t blown up yet, and she was only known to a select group of people watching “Bizaardvark” on the Disney Channel. That all started to change in November 2019 when Disney+ released “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series,” which turned out to be a hit.

The series is set in Salt Lake City, Utah at East High – the same location where the original beloved “High School Musical” took place – and follows four main characters: talented singer Nini Salazar-Roberts (Olivia Rodrigo, “ Bizaardvark”), her aloof ex-boyfriend Ricky Bowen (Joshua Bassett, “Stuck in the Middle”), her more assembled current boyfriend EJ Caswell (Matt Cornett, “ZOMBIES”) and superstar, new girl on the campus, Gina Porter (Sofia Wylie, “Andi Mack”). True to the show’s name, East High’s drama department presents “High School Musical” in the first season. A key plot point of the series is the love triangle between Nini, Ricky, and EJ, which culminates in the first season finale when Nini and Ricky finally get back together. The second season was released on May 14, 2021, and follows East High Theater’s production of “Beauty and the Beast” (why they didn’t just do “High School Musical 2” is still a mystery to me). Probably due to her sudden rise to prominence after the release of “Driver’s License” in January 2021, Olivia Rodrigo’s character takes up a lot more space in the back and is sent to a posh acting school at the start of the season. Nini and Ricky break up again after realizing they may not be as compatible together as they once were, and Ricky enters a new love triangle with Gina and EJ, resulting in Gina and EJ date each other in the season two finale.

The third season starts us off at a summer camp where Gina, EJ, Ricky, and the rest of the East High Theater kids put on a production of “Frozen.” Rodrigo’s character has been sent to California at this point and is now just a recurring character on the show (who can blame him, really).

To be fair, it’s a kids’ show on Disney+, and I definitely don’t watch it because it’s a “good” award-winning show. To be honest, the only reason I came back for season three was to see Rodrigo and his character development. I think many “HSMTMTS” viewers are fans of Rodrigo and probably watched it for similar reasons. Especially during season two, which came out a week before ACID debuted, I constantly saw posts on social media correlating Olivia in “HSMTMTS” and songs from the album, as well as the Olivia Rodrigo/Joshua Bassett/Sabrina Carpenter drama.

The plot of the show is very generic; Each season as a whole works by the same formula, just with a slightly larger crisis, longer panic periods, and slightly more complicated resolutions. In my opinion, “HSMTMTS” relies on too many love triangles to move the story forward and mostly focuses on the romantic relationships between the main characters. All in all, it’s very cheesy, but there’s really nothing wrong with it. In fact, these sorts of tropes remind me of Disney Channel Originals from the 2000s and 2010s (think “Liv and Maddie,” “Girl Meets World,” and “Wizards of Waverly Place”). Like some of the early Disney Channel shows, the dialogue between characters on “HSMTTMTS” often sounds less like how teenagers actually talk to each other and more like how older generations think the younger generation communicates. The show consistently reinforces the ideas of friendship, love, and support (which are all good things, don’t get me wrong), but it could be more subtle. Ultimately, though, it’s a Disney Channel show and it’s made for young teens, so can you really expect anything else? I may not be in the target demographic now, but if I was in elementary or middle school, I bet the show would be one of my favorites.

Despite the show’s young audience, it can still be enjoyable to watch college-aged kids and those who watched the original “High School Musical” growing up. The nostalgia factor of these films can seriously set in, and of course having one of Gen Z’s most famous rising stars on the show helps. The third season aimed a little more at older audiences, bringing back “Hannah Montana” star Jason Earles as summer camp director, Jesse Tyler Ferguson (“Modern Family”) as Nini’s biological father. and even Corbin Bleu (Chad in the original “High School Musical”) and JoJo Siwa (“Dance Moms”) make appearances.

The show makes some very engaging stylistic choices. Unlike the many shows I watched on the Disney Channel growing up, “HSMTMTS” uses confessionals where the characters look and speak directly into the camera, like “Modern Family” or “The Office.” My favorite moment of the current season is when Ricky broke the fourth wall after making a comment about his character’s relationship to EJ’s character in the musical.

“High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” has some great moments for older audiences and is a fun watch if that’s what you’re looking for. Of course, it’s a children’s show at the end of the day. As such, it’s going to give you a little embarrassment, but for the intended audience, it’s a good time. “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” gives today’s middle and elementary school kids something to look forward to when they turn on the television.

Daily art writer Jenna Jaehnig can be reached at jjaehnig@umich.edu.

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