At first glance, “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” seems like a blatant cannibalization of a Disney property as required by a streaming service that depends on nostalgia. At second glance — well, that’s entirely accurate. To its credit, though, the show is upfront about it, delivering its gentle twist on an aggressively inoffensive franchise with a not-so-sly wink.
The new series, which launches Nov. 12 alongside Disney Plus as a whole, is neither a reboot, nor a revival, nor a sequel to the “High School Musical” movie trilogy. (The first two aired on Disney Channel in 2006 and 2007 before the third got a theatrical release in 2008, taking in $252 million worldwide.) Instead, creator Tim Federle made a cute mockumentary- style comedy about the students at the school where “High School Musical” was shot putting on their own rendition of the musical itself, treating it with the kind of reverence that usually belongs to an unimpeachable classic like “West Side Story.” It feels less like “High School Musical” than a sweet and very silly version of “Glee” — which, as best exemplified by the meta character of overzealous theater director Miss Jenn (Kate Reinders doing her best Kristin Chenoweth), is exactly what the show seems to be going for.
In order to keep the show grounded, or at least a bit less confusing than its cheeky title suggests, “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” makes sure its main characters don’t stray too far from the property that inspired them. Where Zac Efron once played Troy, a frustrated basketball player with a secret musical talent, Joshua Bassett stars as Ricky, a frustrated skater with a secret musical talent. Where Vanessa Hudgens once played Gabriella, a sweet and determined singer, Olivia Rodrigo plays Nini, a sweet and determined singer. The complication the series throws at them is that they’re very recent exes, and Nini was hoping to star in the musical opposite her extremely earnest new boyfriend E.J. (Matt Cornett) before Ricky crushes the audition with a surprise serenade. With barely any time devoted to them as a couple, it’s hard to know exactly how hard to root for them to get back together, especially with E.J. giving Nini the support and devotion Ricky couldn’t. But they’re our Troy and Gabriella, so if the season doesn’t end with them getting back together to rapturous applause, it wouldn’t be very “High School Musical” of them at all. Disney Plus can’t have that.
In the first two episodes screened for critics, the series does try to make some adjustments to shake up the peppy clichés of the original. E.J. is a popular jock without any of the usual macho hangups that usually go with that role. The scene-stealing role of the fiercely ambitious Sharpay (originally played by Ashley Tisdale) goes to an equally ambitious, if quieter, boy. Nini has two mothers. And there’s one genuinely moving scene in which Nini finds Ashlyn (Julia Lester) rehearsing her own original song and joins in, their voices opening up to fill the cavernous auditorium with their palpable longing. These moments, however, tend to highlight the fact that other aspects of the show remain frustratingly similar to the movie’s overwhelmingly two-dimensional approach, like the fact of Nini’s best friend (Dara Renee) being a wary black girl without much discernible interiority of her own.
That complaint also goes for the fact that “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” is, like its source material, bizarrely suspended in a timeless place. Beyond an Instagram reference here and there, its first couple episodes just doesn’t do much to reflect that the show is set well over a decade from when Efron and Hudgens first hit the stage, or make a case for why this story might be interesting to tell now beyond “people know what ‘High School Musical’ is and Disney Plus needed content.” To be fair, maybe that’s the only meaningful bar it needs to clear.
“High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” premieres November 12 on Disney Plus.