“If you just want some comfort food, you could do a lot worse.”
Rejoice! The Disneypocalypse has begun: Disney+ has launched and ten million accounts signed up on the first day. It won’t be long before Disney owns us all. Hopefully we’ll get some quality entertainment while traveling the path to damnation.
Amidst the Mandalorians,the classic Disney movies, the MCU’s, etc., High School Musical: The Musical – The Series (HSM:TM-TS) stands out – a spin off musical about kids who love a Disney Channel Original Movie that’s already about kids in a musical, the meta-weirdness doesn’t end there. The kids in the show attend the real-life school HSM was shot at, and are therefore producing their own rendition of it, singing the songs that made that original movie successful enough to merit a spin off series years later. All the while the characters are on some level aware that they are in a show? It’s not a mockumentary like The Office, but there’s a fair few talking heads.
The cyclical nature of corporations here is almost dystopian. I’m not usually one to decry the death of originality in entertainment, but to have a show that commits so much of its identity to the fact that it’s a spin off, is really striking. It begs a moment of pause. If the original High School Musical was a rock-band, this show would be the child of those band members trying to start their own band years later, playing not-bad-but-just-different covers of songs, all the while trying to start their own stuff which is fine but not memorable.
And what if this show is successful? Will there be a podcast series about fans of the show that re-enact it in a decade? Will there be a VR experience where we can pretend to be the characters pretending to be Troy and Gabriella?
In some ways, it’s not much different than any other ancillary product based off a movie. Not many people would want to visit Star Wars Land if it wasn’t based off the movies, it’s a product of a product. HSM:TM-TS approaches this state of affairs with such a cheeky joy that you can’t help but wonder if on some level the creators were despising the corporate ecosystem that permitted such a necessarily unoriginal, iterative show to exist.
Episode one, “The Auditions” establishes a fairly engaging love triangle (which’ll probably turn into a square at some point). Ricky (Joshua Basset) and Nini (Olivia Rodrigo) were dating for almost a year when Ricky, immediately after Nini drops the L word in a song, suggests that they “just..like..chill”. It’s a funny scene: Basset plays up the awkward teen guy and Rodrigo really makes you feel Nini’s heartbreak.
The show begins the first day after summer vacation, after they’ve already broken up. There’s a new drama teacher and Ricky is ready to get back together with Nini. Unfortunately for him, the kindly Nini has found a new man (the fawning and devoted EJ played by Matt Cornett) while she was at theatre camp. Upon the announcement that the school will be performing HSM, Ricky decides he’ll audition for Troy to try and show Nini, who loves musicals, that he’s grown as a person. It all leads to an audition scene that’s genuinely engaging, as Nini and Ricky navigate their ever shifting sentiments towards each other. Nini stands her ground, though, despite Ricky’s dreaminess, telling him to stay in his lane.
The supporting cast is relatively generic, but they’re charming in their own way. Besides, they’re mostly relegated to one off jokes, with the bulk of the episode focusing on Ricky and Nini’s dynamic.
If you’re not looking for much, the show is genuinely fun. It’s very much in the vein of modern Disney-Channel-safe teen comedies: a mildly diverse cast, innocent humour, performative politics, fun characters. It’s especially fun how the obligatory ‘anti-musical’ teacher isn’t the gym teacher this time around, but instead a ‘STEM teacher’. At one point he stares at the camera confessing that he doesn’t have anything against musicals…its just that he wants these kids to have actual skills. Its funny!
It’s too early to say whether or not the series will really lean into the meta-weirdness potential the premise suggests. It would be hilarious if the kids started to lose their identities to their roles, with Ricky slowly thinking he is Troy and Nini believing she is Gabriella. That’s practically guaranteed not to happen; most likely the musical will just be a catalyst and backdrop for the current cast to sort their drama out.
Unsurprisingly, all the Disney funded characters love the Disney funded musical their Disney funded show is based on. Only Ricky displays any sort of negative opinion of the original, but that is explained by his initial blanket disapproval of musicals. Everyone else seems pretty in love with the original film; shouldn’t there be that one kid who’s cynical and #overit and hates the film because it’s popular? I know this isn’t a big deal but it stands out, because Disney is everywhere.
It gets weirder, though. Theatre teacher Miss Jenn (Kate Reinders), who calls herself a millennial, claims that putting this show on is her generational duty, which in reality serves as a Disney character congratulating Disney on how iconic their movie was. Is this what a cult of personality looks like?
In the end, you really won’t be missing much if you don’t check out HSM:TM-TS right away. If you just want some comfort food, you could do a lot worse. And I’m sure once it’s done it’ll be a nice binge.
Episode one is a fine opening to a series that, if nothing else, serves a bullet to the canary in the corporate-media-monopoly coal mine. Come to think of it, that bird was already dead. This show is just one more bullet, making sure that poor poor bird won’t be getting up again.