Review: ‘High School Musical: The Musical: The Series’ Season 2 Draws Viewers in but Lacks Charm of First Season

The massive success of season 1 brought a fanbase back for season 2, but it ultimately did not live up to the music and acting fans were expecting.

by Pierce Wilson | 8/20/21 2:00am

by Alexandra Ma / The Dartmouth

The second season of the Disney+ backstage musical and mockumentary “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” ended a few weeks ago. This season saw the show depart from its title, as the students in the drama club of East High are no longer working on a production of “High School Musical: The Musical,” but rather of Alan Menken’s “Beauty and The Beast.” Though this season dives deeper into the different characters’ development, it lacks the charm of the first season overall.

First, the elephant in the room: while I usually try not to think about actors’ personal lives when consuming media, I found it at times difficult to ignore the looming drama between Olivia Rodrigo and her co-star and on-screen love interest Joshua Bassett. Rodrigo has enjoyed newfound critical acclaim this year following her song “Driver’s License” about her fallout with Bassett, and that fame has eclipsed that of “HSMTMTS.” Thus, it’s easy to see how it can interfere with the viewing experience of this show.

Not only was it surreal to watch Bassett and Rodrigo play a couple after their extremely public breakup, but it was also less engaging since their chemistry was weaker. The finale of season one featured their performance of the duet “Just For A Moment” that filled the audience with awe. Their on-screen chemistry was electric; I truly felt like I was watching two people fall for one another, and I cannot commend them enough for that performance. 

This season though, the chemistry just wasn’t there. I was almost relieved when their characters, Nini and Ricky, began to go through a rough patch and eventually break up — because at least that was believable. Bassett’s performance, in particular, was lacking this season, especially when he and Rodrigo had to act like a couple. It isn’t deadly, but is noticeable enough to be distracting. 

About halfway through the season, when Nini and Ricky break up, we have a chance to see how each of them deals with the fallout and watch them grow as individuals. Nini explores her songwriting talents and her dreams for the future, while Ricky finally gets to contemplate what musical theater means to him outside of his relationship with Nini. This shift in focus was quite refreshing, as I think I would have quickly grown bored if I had to sit through another ten episodes of “will they, won’t they.”

Likewise, where last season’s romantic focus was on the aforementioned love triangle turned quadrangle of Nini, Ricky, E.J and Gina, in this season we got to see complexity and depth from all of the other characters.

Despite the ensemble cast, much of season one focused on Nini, Ricky, E.J and Gina, making the other characters feel quite one-note, but this season definitely improved upon that. More depth was brought to fan-favorite characters like Courtney, Ashlyn and Big Red, thereby giving a more realistic picture of the trials, tribulations, misunderstandings and tough decisions that high schoolers must contend with every day. 

I especially liked how each of the couples in the show had their own issues to work through. In season one, it felt like Nini, Ricky, E.J and Gina were the only characters that had romantic problems. But this season, Big Red worked through his feelings of inadequacy around dating Ashlyn; Sebastian reckoned with the socioeconomic differences between his family and Carlos’s; and Howie and Courtney dealt with issues of honesty and vulnerability. The fact that none of these relationships were perfect and all had complex issues made the show so much more realistic and immersive. 

Although “HSMTMTS” features compelling characters, the entire High School Musical franchise has always shone in terms of music, and “HSMTMTS” is no different. After all, hearing Rodrigo’s “I Think I Kinda You Know” on Instagram is what compelled me to begin watching the show in the first place. 

This season’s soundtrack switched it up and gave us more original songs than before. Although it did not feature any breakout songs à la Rodrigo’s “All I Want” from season one, it featured a much more diverse range of songs that showcased unique vocal performances from cast members who did not feature as prominently on last season’s soundtrack, like Dara Renee and Larry Saperstein. Last season’s soundtrack almost felt like a demo record for Rodrigo, so it was refreshing to listen to songs by her peers. 

This season’s soundtrack also included a much wider array of genres. I was quite surprised to hear tango, folk and jazz sounds in the show, but they meshed well into the world. I think the most heartwarming performance was the cover of “You Are the Music in Me” by the whole cast in the finale. It reminded me of the magic of the original “High School Musical” movies and of the first season. 

The first season’s soundtrack was something I listened to all the time, and it stood on its own as an album. However, this season’s soundtrack is a less cohesive project, and it features fewer songs that I could see myself revisiting. This album also has a much less compelling emotional narrative, and I think some of that is due to the fact that this season did focus on so many more characters. 

Overall, “HSMTMTS” still feels as though it’s struggling to find its identity at times. Although the show began as a mockumentary, the confessional format was all but ditched this season. As a result, it felt awkward when the show would randomly feature a confessional or break the fourth wall in an episode, because most of the show feels more like a regular Disney production. 

If “HSMTMTS” is renewed for a third season, I hope it continues to focus on the depth of its characters and refine its sonic identity. 

Rating: ★★★★☆