Regularly scheduled programming: ‘High School Musical: The Musical: The Series’ finds its stride in third season

A red Wildcats mascot is on top of yellow text that reads "High School Musical."
(Asya Lyubavina • The Student Life)

This column contains minor spoilers for season three of “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series.”

In the general cultural consciousness, Disney+’s “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” likely brings to mind one of two things. Either its absurdly long title or the role it played to skyrocket Olivia Rodrigo’s career. Its three-season run has had quite a moment in cultural significance, but the most recent season proves that it’s worth more than just its behind-the-scenes drama — even if that’s what initially drew an audience.

“HSMTMTS,” created by Tim Federle, premiered in 2019 during the early days of Disney+. It follows the drama students of Salt Lake High School East — or “East High” as it is colloquially known — which fans may recognize as the school where the original “High School Musical” franchise was filmed. The first season revolves around the students putting on the first production of “High School Musical” ever to be done at the school, hence the meta-nature of the show’s title. The first season’s plot revolved around the production of “High School Musical” and the love triangle between Nini, played by Olivia Rodrigo; Ricky, played by Joshua Bassett; and EJ, played by Matt Cornett.

In January 2021, “HSMTMTS” gained a whole new role in the cultural zeitgeist beyond just being a wholesome show about theater kids. Olivia Rodrigo’s breakout first single “driver’s license” was released, and with its instant popularity came an outpouring of rumors about the song. There was great speculation that Rodrigo wrote it about her relationship with co-star Joshua Bassett. Based on the lyrics of the song, it also was rumored that it was about the end of their relationship and the start of Bassett’s alleged relationship with actress Sabrina Carpenter.

For months after the song came out, it dominated the cultural conversation. Bassett and Carpenter were subject to seemingly endless online harassment, even receiving death threats. Its impact is still felt even today, with album releases from Carpenter and new music from Bassett that continually lead to even more speculation — and it can all be traced all the way back to a show about a group of theater kids who go to the Salt Lake High School East.

The behind-the-scenes drama and conversation around the song led into the premiere of the second season in early summer 2021, after the release of Rodrigo’s incredible, instant-favorite debut album “Sour” — a season I ultimately found didn’t live up to the genre perfection of the first season.

However, the third season, which premiered on July 27 and just ended on Sept. 14, is far and away my favorite season of the show so far, and it definitely restored the magic that was captured in the first season.

The East High students head to Camp Shallow Lake, a sleepaway summer camp in California that has promised a celebrity guest. The guest turns out to be Corbin Bleu, the original Chad Danforth from “High School Musical.” The kids learn that they are going to be the first group outside of Broadway to perform the musical version of “Frozen.” On top of that, they will be filming the entire production for a documentary to be released on Disney+. This continuation of the meta aspect of the show never felt heavy-handed, and its integration into the plot as the main source of conflict was well done.

I was excited to tune in each week to “HSMTMTS,” I have become very attached to the central group of teenagers, and I am not too big to admit that their unwavering support and empathy for one another has made me tear up more than a few times. As I wrote the first time I wrote about the show in 2019, the scripting of the show seems to take great care to portray the teenage characters and their problems in a way that never feels patronizing toward them.

“HSMTMS” also shines in its characterization of all of the students. I hesitate to call anyone a side character, as they are all given their own storylines and attention in the plot. Ashlyn, played by Julia Lester, had a particularly heartwarming and emotional plot line this season, coming to terms with her sexuality while at camp. Additionally, Kourtney, via Dara Reneé, struggled with anxiety while playing Elsa in “Frozen” and was buoyed by the support of her fellow East High students, as well as some new characters.

In the history of Hollywood, behind-the-scenes drama is a tale as old as time. So long as there are people involved in the creation of a piece of art, there will inevitably be interpersonal conflicts. We can see it in one of the greatest albums of all time, Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumors,” and even as recently as last weekend with the release of “Don’t Worry Darling,” which has been a source of endless conversation over the past few weeks due to alleged conflict between actors.

The third season of “High School Musical the Musical: The Series” is one of my favorite seasons of TV ever. Everything came together to create a wholesome group of characters and a compelling plot line with great chemistry. Although “HSMTMTS” might be on your radar because of things that happened behind the scenes, it’s worth a watch for the greatness of the show alone. Plus, catching up now will ensure your ability to watch the meta-reunion madness of season four.

Claire DuMont SC ’23 is one of TSL’s TV columnists. She is currently rewatching “Derry Girls” ahead of season three being added to Netflix soon, and is loving the new episodes of “Abbott Elementary.” One of her favorite memories from childhood is going to see “High School Musical 3” in theaters with her mom.

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