Before we start, let me just say: as a former summer camp counselor (CLV hive rise up!), I do *not* condone Camp Shallow Lake’s approach to a single safety practice. Scheduled roll-calls? None in sight. Trained counselors assigned to cabins full of minors? Nope! Literally any evident policy on screening surprise outside guests (many of them full-on adults)?
To quote Camp Shallow Lake’s breakout theatrical, romantic, and fake documentary lead: don’t get me started.
Distressing lack of responsible adult oversight aside, High School Musical: The Musical: The Series: The Summer Camp Season—which dropped its eighth and extra-long final episode on Wednesday—nevertheless turned out to be a whole heap of meta, theater-kid fun. Who’s surprised? Not this OG critic!
*(Yes, that last linked interview DOES feature me speaking the Summer Camp Season into existence. You’re all welcome!!)
Starring HSMTMTS regulars Sofia Wylie, Joshua Bassett, Matt Cornett, Julia Lester, Dara Renée and Frankie Rodriguez, and featuring seasonal guest players Saylor Bell, Adrian Lyles, Meg Donnelly, and Corbin Bleu (yes, that’s the Corbin Bleu), the fizzy, summer-set Season 3 broke from the large ensemble, school-centric tradition of HSMTMTS’ first two winking seasons and sent a small contingent of the East High Wildcats we’ve come to know and love off on a road trip to Camp Shallow Lake. Yes, that’s the Camp Shallow Lake, the California summer camp that wreaked so much off-screen havoc in Nini (Olivia Rodrigo) and Ricky’s relationship in the run-up to Season 1, and that simultaneously gave Nini such a life-changing boost of confidence that her star’s been streaking away from Salt Lake City ever since.
On which note, let me head everyone who’s not caught up yet off at the pass: no, Rodrigo’s name being missing from the roll call of series regulars above wasn’t a typo. While Nini does have a mini solo arc in the first couple of episodes of this latest season—meeting her biological dad (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) and getting a Californian zap of musical inspiration as a result—and while she then also shows up briefly in the finale to deliver her traditional opening night cards to her friends in the Camp Shallow Lake theater kid crew, she ultimately isn’t a part of the core camp action. Like, at all. Not even her absence is a presence in this season’s proceedings!
This isn’t to say that everyone at Camp Shallow Lake spends the season forgetting Nini ever existed. Nini has been an important part of the social fabric shared both by her fellow Wildcats and by the Shallow Lake campers she spent the last many previous summers bonding with, so it’s only natural she comes up in passing conversation. But that’s all it ever is—passing conversation. And then, of course, Nini’s arc in the finale ends with her choosing to walk away from East to make a go at a musical career in California, with her moms and her newly discovered biological dad.
Given the Olivia Rodrigo of it all, this isn’t surprising. Nini’s days on High School Musical: The Musical: The Series have been numbered since Rodrigo broke into global pop stardom the summer after Season 1 wrapped. But given the Nini of it all, the central story shifting so firmly (and organically!) away from her is fascinating. Sure, HSMTMTS, as a show made by, about, and for theater kids, is an ensemble production through and through. But Nini and Ricky were positioned as the show’s A1 romantic leads from jump, with Nini as the character the audience was most clearly meant to emotionally empathize with. Everyone else was fun and interesting—and often, it was clear, more complexly so than we were being given access to at the time—but Nini was the series’ original beating heart. And now she’s made what feels like her official exit, and… it couldn’t feel more natural.
Moreover, while it felt good after the fact to have the Nini question settled once and for all, it wasn’t like it was something that was casting an anxious pall over any of the episodes that preceded it. After all, this season saw Gina (Wylie) stepping onto romantic centerstage opposite both EJ (Cornett) and Ricky (Bassett), EJ stepping into Miss Jenn’s directorial shoes, and Ashlyn (Lester), Kourtney (Renée) and Carlos (Rodriguez) stepping up to take on more complex character growth than they’ve been given room to explore in the series’ more densely populated early seasons, all while juggling the excitement and anxiety inherent to the surprise documentary it turned out Corbin Bleu (Bleu, lol) was set to direct for Disney+ (double lol) of Camp Shallow Lake’s mounting of the first ever youth performance of Broadway’s Frozen. There just wasn’t space to make Nini the gravitational center of anyone’s story but her own!
Unfortunately, while it was gratifying to get to spend more meaningful time with Gina and EJ, and exciting to see both Ashlyn learn a new, queer truth about herself and Carlos go full reality show producer queen, there wasn’t always space to accommodate the sheer volume of character growth the show wanted to hit this season, either—especially given the fact that we were also asked to invest in the complicated pasts (and futures) of two entirely new “talking head” characters. Kourtney’s medical-grade anxiety was the arc most obviously shortchanged, the intensity of her experience hitting like a mystifying meteor in the middle of the season rather than building up more organically. But Carlos’ journey to self-acceptance (which I think is what the post-prom ice bath was meant to represent?), Ricky’s obsessive quest to finish his 18th birthday bucket list (this should have been a thing from Episode 1!), and Jet (Lyles) and Ricky’s journey to a best camp bro-ship strong enough to throw Big Red (Larry Sapperstein) off when he shows up with a surprise birthday cake for said 18th birthday were similarly under-developed. Which is just a bummer. We like these kids! Give us more time with them!
That said, if you come to HSMTMTS for romantic earnestness, hyper-produced musical numbers, and shockingly audacious comedy bits, all leading up to an opening night filled with surprises both good and bad—presented, of course, through a winking meta lens—then this season will have been wholly up your wooded alley. On the romantic front, the Gina + Ricky pairing being made triumphant canon is the headliner, obviously (and yes, I’m pretty sure #Rina was trending in Brazil at midnight), but Ashlyn’s slow-reveal crush on Val (Donnelly) and the Mad (Bell) and Mad (JoJo Siwa) reunion tied for a sweet second place. Meanwhile, the obvious frontrunner for best musical number was the hallucinatory basketball-meets-dance duet between Gina and Corbin Bleu after she’s knocked unconscious by a basketball to the temple during Color War**, while the best joke was Kourtney invoking the unholy trio of “spiders, ghosts, [and] men’s rights activists” when asked by Carlos why she was drenching herself in mosquito spray in the campout episode.
**(A chain of events this former camp counselor who was also felled by an errant basketball to the temple can report is, incredibly, more accurate than not.)
And as far as the series’ chaotic opening night tradition goes, well, Tim Federle and the rest of his creative team outdid themselves by delivering not just one but two completely different, completely bonkers examples. First was the one-night run of Camp Shallow Lake’s Frozen (featuring Carlos as a very majestic Olaf and Kourtney as a killer Elsa). The second was the blue-carpet scrum and pre-screening reveal of the trailer for the much-hyped Disney+ documentary (featuring Carlos as a rainbow-gowned dream and Kourtney as a misquoted shit-stirrer), which itself doubled as this season’s biggest meta twist, adding “real” talking head interviews and handheld documentary footage to a project that’s been framed with un-real talking head interviews (to no one) and handheld documentary footage (filmed by a crew that doesn’t exist) since Day 1.
Now, given that next season’s in-show production (High School Musical 3) and meta-franchise twist (the original High School Musical cast coming back to East High to film High School Musical 4: The Reunion on-location, with “our” Wildcats playing featured extras) have already been announced, it’s safe to say HSMTMTS has yet to hit its meta ceiling. And while I’d never bet against theater kids when a synergistic High School Musical: The Musical: The Ever-Deepening Joke tightrope walk is on the line, pulling in the original cast is going to take some expert-level theatrics.
Which is to say: I can’t wait.
The first three seasons of High School Musical: The Musical: The Series are streaming now on Disney+.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.
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