In the opening scenes of “High School Musical 3: Senior Year,” the East High Wildcats face a challenging halftime situation, trailing by 21 points during New Mexico’s 5A Basketball State Championship. Coach Bolton, portrayed by Bart Johnson, delivers an impassioned speech to ignite the team’s spirits. The scene transitions seamlessly into the energetic opening number, “Now Or Never,” followed by Captain Troy Bolton, played by Zac Efron, singing the powerful lines, “This is the last chance to get it right… this is the last chance to make our mark… so make it count.”
A comparable level of pressure looms over the fourth and final season of Disney+’s “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series,” scheduled to premiere on August 9.
The musical mockumentary experienced a triumphant first season upon its debut in 2019. It brilliantly struck a balance between catering to the devoted fans of the original film trilogy while simultaneously introducing a new cast of fresh-faced characters. This harmonious blend not only satisfied those who had been following the series since the early 2000s but also engaged a younger audience who were still in high school when the first movie released. The series cleverly gave nods to those hardcore musical theater fans, catering to those who are able to list every Jellicle cat in their sleep.
As season three concluded with the cast attending a summer theater camp, season four of “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” returns its focus to the heart of East High. The season commences with an eagerly anticipated reunion of original Wildcats—Corbin Bleu, Monique Coleman, Lucas Grabeel, and KayCee Stroh—onstage. While their appearance was met with excitement, the initial scene took a surprisingly meta turn, momentarily disorienting the viewers.
Initially, it seemed like Bleu, Coleman, Grabeel, and Stroh were performing in the opening scene, given their previous appearances as themselves in the series. However, when the director called “Cut” and the camera panned out to reveal a film crew, it became clear that we were watching actor Corbin Bleu portraying the HSMTMTS character Corbin Bleu appearing as HSM character Chad Danforth. This layer of complexity stretched our capacity to process meta-references.
This layered narrative structure arises because season four revolves around the fictional “High School Musical 4: The Reunion” being filmed at East High School. The current drama students are enlisted as featured extras, leading to conflicts with their rehearsals for the drama club’s production of “High School Musical 3.” Three new characters, including TikToker-turned-actor Dani (Kylie Cantrall), former sitcom child star Mack (Matthew Sato), and self-serious millennial Director Quinn (Caitlin Reilley), join the ensemble. Yet, in the series’ final season, our primary focus should remain on the core group that has been integral since the beginning.
The show’s strength lies in its unity, a “We’re all in this together” mentality, which takes a while to materialize this season. While the characters interact consistently—participating as featured extras in HSM4—individual storylines overshadow the group dynamic. With some students preparing for graduation and others navigating their junior year, certain character arcs receive more attention. Highlights include Ricky’s (Joshua Bassett) introspection aided by familiar faces, Kourtney’s (Dara Renée) exploration of college options beyond the Ivies, and Ashlyn’s (Julia Lester) heartfelt journey of self-discovery and newfound queer identity (featuring an Eleanor Roosevelt tribute).
Gina (Sofia Wylie) takes center stage, transitioning from a featured extra to one of HSM4’s leads. This parallels real life, where Wylie gained prominence in HSMTMTS following Olivia Rodrigo’s exit to pursue music.
However, Carlos (Frankie A. Rodriguez), who matured throughout previous seasons, contends with a lackluster storyline centered on his search for his missing boyfriend, Seb (Joe Serafini). Excessive dialogue on this topic might stem from Serafini’s potential unavailability during filming, resulting in a less compelling narrative for our theater enthusiast.
Kate Reinders’ portrayal of Miss Jenn shines this season, grounding the show in its original essence. She dispenses heartfelt advice to her students while offering self-aware moments, such as acknowledging her role as Ms. Darbus and labeling HSM3 a “complicated 2008 period piece.”
Among the first six episodes provided for review, only two songs encapsulate HSMTMTS’s essence—reinterpreting original HSM songs in a fresh context. Hopefully, the final two episodes deliver more, providing the emotional and spirited farewell these characters deserve.
As is customary in concluding seasons, the series must honor its past while bidding farewell to its characters. We remain hopeful for surprise appearances by the absent Wildcats portrayed by Efron, Hudgens, and Tisdale (especially given their social media posts outside East High School). However, by the conclusion of the sixth episode, it feels like we’re trailing in the fourth quarter. Perhaps the last installments can help HSMTMTS secure a triumphant finish.