“High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” — First Impressions from D23 Expo

It’s weird that it’s taken a decade for the perennially in-development High School Musical inspired TV series to debut. Many concepts were tried, from a continuation of the unlikeable “New” characters established in High School Musical 3: Senior Year to a Good Morning Ms. Bliss-style series centered around Ms. Darbus, which obviously would’ve been great. But what we get at first glance seems even stranger: a Disney+ exclusive scripted series that plays like a reality series that is aimed not at Disney Channel’s current demographic, but at adults who grew up in the HSM era.

Welcome to East High in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the backdrop and filming location for the most successful film musical trilogy of all time, High School Musical. Ms. Jenn is the new drama teacher at East High and her big vision is to stage a high school musical production of High School Musical, the licensed stage production based on the Disney Channel Original Movie of the same name that took place at this very school. This inciting incident brings together a group of students that wouldn’t otherwise have gotten close, similar to the plot of the film High School Musical.

The series takes a cue from The Office and Christopher Guest films like Waiting for Guffman to offer what feels like a documentary with talking head reaction shots as the events unfold. Since it’s aimed more at adults, expect some mild language, including a bleeped-out swear from a student, and some sexually implied scenarios. It’s the kind of series that would’ve been on Freeform instead of Disney Channel if this were the pre-Disney+ world of 2019, which, you know, it still kind of is.

As silly as the premise may be and as much as it pokes fun at the source material, there’s also a deep reverence for it. The leads are so charismatic and appealing and audiences will quickly find the tension between them is gripping. The characters are clearly inspired by many of the characters from High School Musical, but aren’t purely copycats either. They actually end up feeling a lot more well rounded.

The story centers around Nini (Olivia Rodrigo, Bizaardvark), an academic student who broke up with Ricky (Joshua Bassett, Stuck in the Middle) at the beginning of the summer when he didn’t reciprocate her love confession. Now back at school, Ricky is ready to get back together with Nini only to find that she has a new boyfriend she met at a musical summer camp and he also happens to be the school’s basketball star, EJ (Matt Cornett). In an effort to win Nini back, Ricky auditions for East High’s production of High School Musical and ends up mixed in with the theater crowd that includes the school’s star actress (Sofia Wylie, Andi Mack), a flamboyant choreographer (Frankie A. Rodriguez), and an intense director bent on making the cast fit together no matter what.

I saw the pilot at the D23 Expo, along with a quick panel discussion hosted by Corbin Bleu and some of the cast from the series. I went from not expecting much to being a champion for the series, which I expect to go viral and possibly even nab Disney+ some of its first TV award nominations (also The Mandalorian, but that’s a different galaxy for a different article).

Over the course of ten episodes, fans will watch the drama unfold in ways the condensed films never could. It’s inspired by a film you know well, but is still fresh, new, and reinvigorating. Unlike some of Disney’s recent revivals that aimed at an audience younger than fans of the original material (Girl Meets World, the remake of Adventures in Babysitting, etc…) this series is aimed at fans who were Disney Channel’s target age in the late 2000’s and gives them something nostalgic and new all at once. Yes, it’s fabulous.

Alex Reif
Alex joined the Laughing Place team in 2014 and has been a lifelong Disney fan. His main beats for LP are Disney-branded movies, TV shows, books, music and toys. He recently became a member of the Television Critics Association (TCA).