High School Musical: The Musical: The Series goes to camp, but just can’t rock it

In the third season of HSMTMTS, a fraction of our cast heads off to camp, encountering fresh faces, new challenges and yet another musical performance. In trying to veer off and do something a little different, HSMTMTS is missing some of that fun ‘high school’ vibe that was improved upon in season two.

The second season excelled with a narrative that flowed really well and gave each character a meaningful arc. So it’s a shame to see this season drop the ball for six of its eight episodes. It’s clear to me that this season suffers from trying to do to much, while notably treading familiar ground with one of the central love triangle romances. Firstly, narratives teased at the end of the second season were randomly dropped within the first 10 minutes. Also, a small chunk of our main cast of characters were more-or-less written out of the season to make room for some new characters. This paves the way for a season that struggles to find its footing until it’s too late. There’s elements that certainly worked, but there’s also a lot that just didn’t hit nearly as well.

I’d say the overall narrative of the season, and the journey it takes, was just okay. The idea of filming a Disney+ documentary within this show is very fun and meta, but the execution fell flat. Aside from some key character relationships that are fully fleshed out over the course of the season, there wasn’t much to really latch on to in terms of the story. The moments spent rehearsing and performing the Frozen musical were nice, but it didn’t really feel all too prominent. It’s quite clear that with this season, it feels like every potential positive is met with a ‘but’. I kept coming back each week for the few character arcs I was genuinely interested in, as well as lighthearted, cheesy comedy, but I wouldn’t say it ever had me hooked. It just felt like it was lacking that young and fun high school vibe from the previous season. It clearly went for a bit more of a Camp Rock feel, and it just wasn’t working for me.

So, we’ve established that the overall narrative, structure and tone of the season just wasn’t as much of a vibe, but what was good? Firstly, there are plenty of moments of witty and silly comedy that we’ve all come to expect, and that hasn’t changed. If anything, the humour got a little more meta than usual, especially early on. Not every attempt at comedy hit, but I’d say just enough did to get me through most episodes comfortably. So no complaints there. There’s also some nice central character arcs both with the old and new characters. Maddox (Saylor Bell) is by far the best of the newcomers. I loved her arc throughout the season and found her distinct attitude a real breath of fresh air. Jet (Adrian Lyles) is a character who grew on me and actually bought a good amount of emotion to the season.

Of the returning cast, the love-triangle drama between EJ (Matt Cornett), Gina (Sofia Wylie) and Ricky (Joshua Bassett) was entertaining, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was a little too familiar to the whole Nini, Ricky and EJ love triangle. Speaking of Nini, it’s obvious Olivia Rodrigo’s real-world success has made a huge impact on the series. Her limited presence in this season is entirely forced, there’s nothing natural about it. I understand they can’t just have the character disappear, but the attempt to make her appearances relevant was weak. Back to the good stuff for a second. I need to credit Sofia Wylie, as her performance is by far the one that stood out the most. She’s the star of the season, is given the most to do, and absolutely nails every single moment. Saylor Bell is another I really hope sticks around for the next season, though I have the feeling her stint may be done.

I need to touch on the songs, because this is High School Musical. The handling of musical numbers throughout the season ended up being such a rollercoaster of highs and lows. Let me just clarify, I thoroughly enjoyed all of the songs, but what really irked me is the way half of them are weaved in. Some songs are integrated seamlessly into the story, while others feel like an isolated music video that has been randomly edited into an episode. When a scene naturally flows into a character (or a group of characters) singing a song in the context of what’s happening in the story, it works. When all of a sudden the story stops so we can have Ricky/Joshua record a music video for his new hit, or Gina/Sofia record her own solo number, it’s jarring as hell. I don’t know where this creative decision came from, but I hope it’s gone for the next season.

As much as almost every good thing in the season has its ‘buts’, the final two episodes really turn things around. It may just be down to all of the lingering narratives finally coming to a head, but these final episodes are also packed with heartwarming and heartbreaking emotional beats. The penultimate episode especially may be my favourite of the entire series – it’s very effective with its emotional storytelling, while still remaining fun at the same time. These episodes bring the series back to that season two form, if not even better, but it’s too little too late. All of the dawdling around and slow-moving arcs early on make the season a big let-down, despite the strong finish.

In the end, HSMTMTS doesn’t quite continue its upward trajectory in this third season, but it’s a worthwhile watch for fans who’ve enjoyed the series thus far. The change of scenery and very different approach to the narrative is intriguing at first, but quickly becomes a bit of a mess. The silly meta comedy, Sofia Wylie’s performance, Maddox’s character arc and the entirety of the final two episodes are the biggest highlights. Even the presence of Corbin Bleu is cool, especially considering he makes more than just a 30-second cameo. The last-minute bump in quality is hopefully sending us right into a return to form in its fourth season.

5.7/10

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