Returning for a third, highly anticipated season, Disney+’s hit High School Musical: The Musical: The Series transplants its singing and dancing East High Wildcats from downtown Utah to rural California in a summer camp-inspired shakeup to the usual format. Though there’s still plenty of singing and dancing (not to worry musical theater fans – the Wildcats are still putting on a show this season) and Gina’s status-bump to leading lady is a breath of fresh air, HSMTMTS season three struggles to remain as addictive as previous seasons – especially with so many key cast members making themselves scarce.
When we last left our fearless wildcats, Nini (Grammy-winning breakout star Olivia Rodrigo), Ricky (Joshua Bassett), EJ (Matt Cornett), Gina (Sofia Wylie), and the rest of the East High gang were riding high off the success of their latest musical – Beauty and the Beast – but not without plenty of soapy high school drama. Nini and Ricky are officially broken up (as are real-life former paramours Rodrigo and Bassett), EJ and Gina are officially an item (even if her brother accidentally got in the way), and Nini’s setting her sights on Hollywood and the music industry, a healthy dose of art imitating life for an already meta show. But with as many exciting questions as the season two finale left us, season three can’t quite stick the landing in resolving cliffhangers or even cooking up drama for season three.
Apart from the summer camp setting (complete with cabins, bunk beds, neurotic counselors, and camp horror stories), the most drastic change heading into season three comes with the reduction of Nini from series regular to borderline recurring character. Yet again, she spends a majority of the season physical separate from the rest of the cast – albeit this time, in LA with her moms as she pursues a career in music. What’s frustrating (even more so than last season), though, is how disconnected Nini feels from the rest of the series.
It’s one thing for Nini to be physical distanced from everyone else, as long as the show still integrated her plotline with the one back in Utah, and kept her in contact (via phone, zoom, what have you) with Ricky and the gang, as was the case with season two. When it comes to season three, though, Nini doesn’t even stay connected with the others remotely – her storyline is entirely isolated from everything else going on in the series. This results in her scenes feeling forced or out of place, especially when giving her screen time means cutting away from everyone else back home.
As frustrating as it is to see Nini sidelined and almost entirely shut off from the rest of the cast, her absence from the majority of season three means that HSMTMTS is in need of a new leading lady – and Gina Porter (Sofia Wylie) is more than capable of stepping up to the plate. Seemingly always the bridesmaid but never the bride, Gina has spent the last two seasons pining over Ricky and being relegated to supporting roles in the musicals – but this summer, she’s got a doting boyfriend in E.J., and one of the leading roles in the musical, a gratifying change of pace to say the least.
Another refreshing change of pace (if long overdue) is the relationship dynamic between Ricky and Gina. In previous seasons, we’ve watched them go from enemies to frenemies to an awkward ‘what are we stage’ after Gina confessed her feelings for him in a season two flashback – but their interactions were always tinged with the knowledge that Ricky was with Nini, and thus a Ricky/Gina romance would never be in the cards. Now, with Ricky and Nini officially broken up, and Nini quite literally out of the picture, season three delivers a new love triangle: EJ, Gina, and Ricky.
Maybe he wants revenge on EJ for stealing his girl at summer camp in season one, but as we head into season three, it’s clear that Ricky has finally resolved to pursue Gina romantically – though his timing couldn’t be worse, considering she’s happily coupled up with her first-ever boyfriend, EJ. While Ricky isn’t outside her window holding a boombox (yet) it’s clear that EJ feels somewhat threatened, though Gina may claim to have moved on and be seeking a fresh start with EJ.
What’s frustrating about season three, though, is how infrequently it engages with what’s without question the most juicy storyline it has. Instead of capitalizing on the EJ/Ricky/Gina dynamic, it instead devotes most of its time to introducing a gaggle of new characters, as well as exploring this season’s ‘twist’ – not only is the summer camp producing Frozen, but the behind-the-scenes process will also be filmed for a Disney+ mockumentary series.
Yes, you read that right – the Disney+ mockumentary series now has a plotline involving a Disney+ mockumentary series – and it’s just as hair-brained as it sounds (did we mention the show’s a bit meta?). Though the choice to (yet again) pass up High School Musical 2 as the musical, Frozen does admittedly make a worthy substitute – especially considering the show’s casting. Still, the angle of the show-within-a-show (which is spearheaded by a strangely antagonistic Corbin Bleu) comes off as more trite than anything else, and between that and the handful of new characters, it feels like the series has forgotten what attracted viewers in the first place.
Season three marks the departure of a number of key players from seasons one and two: because of the new setting, Miss Jenn and Mr. Mazzara are of course absent, but a surprising number of past recurring figures: Seb (Joe Serafini), Big Red (Larry Saperstein), and Natalie (Alexis Nelis) are all also gone. With original cast members dropping like flies, it’s understandable why the series would want to introduce new ones to fill their place – the problem is, in introducing these new characters, season three struggles to also devote meaningful attention to those who *did* return.
Still, even where the plot takes a left turn, High School Musical: The Musical: The Series can always be relied on for one thing: the songs – and season three is no exception. The first two episodes include original songs for both Ricky and Gina, and between the choreography, cinematography, and overall production value, the show’s musical aptitude is undoubtedly at an all-time high. Though viewers looking for a taste of their favorite characters from past seasons may leave feeling underwhelmed, season three’s top-notch tunes and (at long last) Gina-heavy storylines will likely satisfy any die-hard wildcats.
The third season of High School Musical: The Musical: The Series premieres July 27 on Disney+.
Photo: Anne Marie Fox/Disney