Disney+ review: 'High School Musical: The Musical: The Series' is nostalgia done right

Let's be honest about something: There is no yearning cry for more "High School Musical."

There are no fan petitions on Change.org to bring back Gabriella and Troy, to revisit the Wildcats of East High or to, once more, "getcha, getcha head in the game." But the current world of entertainment cares very little whether a TV show is wanted or needed. Corporate behemoths only care if they can revive their intellectual property in movie sequels or on one of the ever-expanding number of platforms for television content.

A cynical person would think of the shameless, money-grabbing parade of Hollywood rehashes when looking at "High School Musical: The Musical: The Series" (streaming Tuesday, ★★★ out of four). It's one of only two original scripted live-action series available at the launch of Disney+, the new marquee streaming service from the biggest of Hollywood's corporate giants (the other being "Star Wars" series "The Mandalorian"). But despite how soulless it may seem, "Musical" is a remarkably unabashed and delightful love letter to high school theater in a way the original film wasn't.

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Thankfully, the absurdly titled new series is not a continuation nor a remake of the three millennial-touchstone movies, starring Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens, that aired on the Disney Channel or in theaters beginning in 2006. Instead, it's a 10-episode, "Modern Family"-style mockumentary about a high school that puts on a production of "High School Musical." To add to the meta-concept, the series takes place at the real East High, where the original movie (and this series) were filmed. It's overcomplicated and mildly confusing, in an amusing, "why the heck not?" sort of way.

"Musical" works because it acknowledges the ridiculousness of its concept and its very existence. There are plenty of muggings to the camera, a hyperbolic sense of wonder at mentions of the original film and a sly sense of humor that gives an edge to the aggressively bright and sunny tone.

The primary focus of "Musical" is the old teen-TV stalwart: the love triangle. Perennial chorus girl Nini (Olivia Rodrigo) and her Broadway-averse boyfriend, Ricky (Joshua Bassett) take a break over the summer after Nini says "I love you," and Ricky panics. At theater camp, Nini starts a "showmance" with hunky leading man E.J. (Matt Cornett), and breaks up with Ricky permanently.

The triangle becomes complicated when Miss Jenn (Kate Reinders), a batty "HSM" obsessive, successfully petitions the school to put on a production of the show. Ricky auditions to try to win back Nini, and somehow snags the starring role as Troy to Nini's Gabriella. Drama, onstage and off, ensues.

It's gratifying that the new series doesn't repeat the plot and relationship dynamics of the original with its new characters. We have seen enough student-athletes struggle with football and the musical. Instead of trying to make the drama club appear cool, the "Musical" writers know that it already is. The series is a far more accurate and affectionate portrait of this subculture than the "HSM" films, NBC's flop "Rise" or even the best years of Fox's "Glee."

Despite the intensely sanitized version of high school Disney+ presents (not CW steamy in the slightest), these kids feel dorky and real. They fret about cast lists, post cheesy songs to Instagram, practice dance moves in the library and worship at the feet of the not-very-impressive Miss Jenn.

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Considering they have to rehearse and put on "HSM," "Musical" finds plenty of time to repeat the infectiously catchy songs of that film and include moments where the characters watch it. The series also has (in the first two episodes made available for review) two original songs that pleasantly echo 2019 high-energy pop music.

There is no question that the show feels extraneous, especially in a world with hundreds of scripted series. Although we never asked for it, "HSMTMTS" is here. If we absolutely, positively, no argument-about-it had to have a continuation of the franchise, 11 years after the third film, somehow Disney+ has found the right way to do it.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Disney+'s 'High School Musical: The Musical: The Series' review