Regularly scheduled programming: ‘High School Musical: The Musical: The Series’ is ‘Glee’ meets ‘The Office’

Black and white drawing of a boy in a letterman jacket, the main character o High School Musical the Musical: The Series. Only the letterman jacket is colored in red, while the boy's shirt is a pale yellow.
Graphic by Eloise Magoncelli

Imagine this: It’s 2006. You’ve just come home from school and you turn on Disney Channel. “High School Musical” is on. Life is good.

For those chasing that feeling, Disney’s new streaming service, Disney+, offers the perfect answer with “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series.” The show takes place at East High, where “High School Musical” was filmed and is framed around the arrival of a new drama teacher directing a musical production of “High School Musical.” 

In a somewhat meta plot, students at the actual “High School Musical” filming location work through their own drama to the tune of original songs. 

Students at East High sign up to audition for roles in the musical, creating a wide variety of plot points and dramatic moments as the show unfolds. Characters have interviews where they talk directly to the camera, in a mockumentary style made famous by “The Office” and “Parks and Recreation.” Although the show is fictional, this faux-reality show style makes the characters seem authentic and interesting.

I’m sure I speak for many college-aged people when I say that watching Disney Channel and “High School Musical” was the pinnacle of my childhood. Even though I have more lines from  “Lemonade Mouth” memorized, I can appreciate that “High School Musical” is a true classic. This is what makes the show so perfect — it blends an entertaining teen show with all of the memories of childhood.

“High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” also thrives in its ability to find the balance between making fun of high schoolers and taking itself seriously. While this may seem obvious, it’s not the case for many other shows of the same nature, namely “Glee” and “Rise.” 

“Glee” ran from 2009 to 2015 and stood out as a kind of cultural phenomenon during its airtime. It had a cult following of fans but also its fair share of critics. Ten years after “Glee” premiered, fans (such as myself) are looking back on the show and where it went wrong. Two former “Glee” stars, Kevin McHale and Jenna Ushkowitz, even have a podcast where they dish about the show. 

There are many things to choose from when trying to figure out why “Glee” wasn’t the best show: the impromptu singing and dancing turned some people off, Mr. Schuester was kind of creepy, the plots didn’t really make sense and some of the characters were insufferable. But I actually believe the show was criticized because it was produced to generate discussion and make fun of itself. 

For most of “Glee”’s run, the running theme was poking fun at the idea that high school students can sing and dance their way through their problems. If “Glee” didn’t take itself seriously, how could anyone else?

On the opposite end, the short-lived NBC show “Rise” had a completely different problem — it took itself too seriously. “Rise” follows a similar plot to “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” with a new drama teacher shaking things up at a high school. I had high hopes for “Rise” but was ultimately disappointed and stopped watching after a few episodes. 

In a great contrast to “Glee,” “Rise”’s main problem was that it was supposed to be uber-serious and meaningful. It ended up being cringeworthy — it became hard to sit through its fake deep monologues and song sequences. 

“Glee” made me think that the high schoolers should be taken seriously, while “Rise” made me think they shouldn’t. “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series,” though, presents the perfect balance: high schoolers being treated not too seriously or in a way that makes fun of them. 

Like “Glee” and “Rise,” the series features high school students with typical high school drama — a love triangle and divorcing parents, among others — taking part in musical theater with original songs strung throughout the episodes. The difference is that the show doesn’t make itself the subject of a joke. At its heart, it’s just an entertaining good time with the right amount of throwback thrown in. 

Unlike “Glee,” the authenticity of “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” stems from the extremely talented cast of actual teenagers playing teenagers, instead of adults in their 20s and 30s. Olivia Rodrigo, for example, is 16 years old and plays Nini Salazar-Roberts. Not only do these characters mirror the characters from the original “High School Musical,” they’re also relatable. 

If a show’s message is that teenagers should be taken seriously, the characters should actually be teenagers. “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” offers an authentic high school comedy-drama with a musical theater influence. 

Imagine this: It’s 2019. You turn on Disney+. “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” is on. Life is good. 

Claire DuMont SC ’23 is one of TSL’s TV columnists and is from Manhattan Beach, California. She loves her dogs, cats and talking about TV (obviously); she is currently getting excited for awards season.

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