I know you got deja-vu: Olivia Rodrigo, Joshua Bassett and the rest of the (presumably more amicable) “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” cast are back for season two!
Again airing in weekly installments on Disney+, “HSM:TM:TS” season two premiered Friday, May 4. The series returns from an “unplanned hiatus” due to the pandemic, as Frankie Rodriguez, who plays Carlos on the show, explained in a call with the Wheel.
The show picks up shortly after the events of season 1, with the first episode of season two covering the East High players’ winter break and discovery that — in a twist for the series — their spring musicale will not be “High School Musical 2” (would the series’ name then be “High School Musical 2: The Musical: The Series” or “High School Musical: The Musical 2: The Series or High School Musical: The Musical: The Series 2”?) but “Beauty and the Beast,” another Disney standard. B-School kids, is this synergy?
The show is returning to a vastly different world than the one it left last season, partly because of the COVID-19 pandemic that delayed filming by ten months and turned its entire audience into involuntary homeschoolers, and partly because of Olivia Rodrigo. 18-year-old Rodrigo’s brutally emotional second-ever single “drivers license” tore up the charts internationally early this year, topping the Billboard Hot 100, earning the biggest first week for a song ever on Spotify, dominating TikTok, and making its teenage writer and singer a ubiquitous name. The song (and its equally yummy follow-ups, “deja vu” and “good 4 u”) slaps galactically hard, and it didn’t dampen attention that fans widely speculated the song was about Rodrigo’s “HSM:TM:TS” co-lead and love interest Joshua Bassett, who “drivers license” truthers allege dated Rodrigo before moving on with fellow Disney Channel Extended Cinematic Universe member Sabrina Carpenter. (Rodrigo’s debut album “Sour,” for which “drivers license” is the lead single, is set to drop May 21.)
Funnily, the rugged earnesty of “drivers license” reflects “HSM:TM:TS” itself. Rodrigo wished on a star and was rewarded, as the Disney ethos dictates. That “follow your dreams!” mythology pervades both seasons of “HSM:TM:TS,” which sees its plucky characters build confidence and community through the power of showbiz. Rodriguez, whose character Carlos is East High’s very enthused choreographer, told the Wheel “at my kindergarten graduation when they asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said I wanted to be a backup dancer for Jennifer Lopez and Ricky Martin, so clearly I’ve been passionate about dance my entire life.” Joe Serafini, who plays Carlos’s boyfriend Seb — who himself plays “HSM:TM:TS”’s “HSM”’s Sharpay — also said he was realizing dreams on the show: “With Seb, I would say (I learned from) the way he just goes after auditioning for Sharpay, which is just, something I feel like I never would have had the guts to do in my high school experience,” Serafini said. “Just going after whatever you want and following your dreams, honestly, as cliche as it sounds, I feel like that’s what Seb has really taught me.”
The sentiment is sweet and certainly hits home for the show’s young actors (close to actual high school age! Looking at you, “Riverdale”) and adolescent audience. However, sugar and spice and everything nice feels more off-kilter now than it did during “HSM:TM:TS”’s freshman season, by no fault of its own. The pandemic has cast a pessimistic, fearful and doomy shadow, especially over teenagers like the show’s East High kids, who have missed many Disney-moment teen milestones and lost years of their coming-of-age stories to a dysfunctional government and unprecedented grief. Whereas the show’s saccharine wholesomeness read as campy fun in its first season, its perpetually-smiling, squeaky-clean teens now threaten suspension of disbelief. The kids are not alright, “HSM:TM:TS”! Ricky’s parents are still getting a divorce this season? I guess? That’s… gritty?
While the cast members the Wheel spoke with all testified to writers’ understanding of kids these days, I wondered about another seeming anachronism in the show — the cringely stereotypical employment of the “Black best friend” trope in the form of Kourtney (Dara Reneé), who throughout season 1 should be charging lead, best friend and Disney princess come to life Nini Salazar-Roberts (Rodrigo) in therapeutic hours. It’s genuinely painful to watch a vibrant Black character relegated to a sounding board, the trustworthy source of “you go girl!”s, especially in a show so evidently committed to representation (its featuring of the canonically-queer gay courtship of Carlos and Seb won the series a GLAAD award).
According to Reneé, however, season two brings evolution for Kourtney. “I think for Kourtney, season two specifically has gotten a lot better for my character. I mean, season 1 was great, but season two really focuses on Kourtney as Kourtney and as her own individual,” Reneé told me. “I know sometimes, as a person of color, and especially as a Black woman, we sometimes go to the category of being a sidekick or not having our own storyline, and I feel like season two, we really pushed for me to have my own individual storyline and to focus on me growing as a person, and Kourtney finding her own way without having to be the support of someone else.”
“HSM:TM:TS” is sticky-sweet escapism, but it, like singing-teen shows before it, is at its best when it gets a little deep: the Carlos and Seb storyline, Rodrigo’s brutally-honest “drivers license” and hopefully, the realization of Kourtney as her own character in season two.