'High School Musical: The Musical: The Series' and 'Forky Asks a Question': TV Review

Craig Sjodin/Disney+
The 'HSM' spinoff winks; the 'Toy Story' short sinks.
11/12/2019

The House of Mouse reaches deep into its vault to pump Disney+ with nostalgic fare, like this funny/kitschy 'High School Musical' spinoff and a short series inspired by 'Toy Story 4.'

High School Musical: The Musical: The Series tells you everything you need to know in its wink-wink title. One-part bloated gobbledygook, two-parts meta satire, this funny/kitschy Disney+ mockumentary series resides somewhere between spinoff, reboot and self-parody. Either way, it's another classic ouroboros from the House of Mouse, which plumes itself with audience nostalgia.

Thankfully, it's bright enough... as long as you can stomach High School Musical hagiography.

The concept is a bit of a brain-melt. Brimming with self-effacing humor, High School Musical: The Musical: The Series is set at a fictionalized version of the Salt Lake City high school where the original HSM was filmed in the early 2000s. The school has recently hired high-strung drama teacher Miss Jenn (Kate Reinders, exuding Big Chenoweth Chirpiness) to direct the upcoming school musical. With the energy of a washed-up car salesman reliving his teen quarterback glory days, Miss Jenn chooses to stage a production of High School Musical because she herself was a background extra during the filming of the original movie.

The half-hour series from creator Tim Federle is designed to primarily appeal to theater nerds and children born well after its originator Big Banged from an atom of a kids cable TV movie into a quarter-billion-dollar dramatic universe. Disney Channel's 2006 High School Musical tells the story of a musically talented but reluctant basketball player (Zac Efron) who finds his voice — and love — on stage with the help of a porcelain ingénue (Vanessa Hudgens). The pic peddled in 20th century teen stereotypes, but its antiseptic pop soundtrack became an earworm for kids, parents and babysitters alike.

In a textbook case of corporate transmedia franchising, the film launched two sequels, four spinoffs, two stage musicals, two concert tours, a reality competition series, a TV pilot, an ice show, a book series, six video games and, confusingly, a spate of comics. Hardcore fans, now in their 20s, may revel in the constant callbacks and Easter eggs, but ultimately, the show serves two purposes: to reinvigorate the HSM brand for Generation Alpha and to pump the drippy new Disney SVOD streaming service with cheap content.

The story plays like a tangled Grease. After a summer breakup, Dragon Ball Z-haired sk8erboi Ricky (Joshua Bassett) is ready to get back together with milquetoast theater kid ex Nini (Olivia Rodrigo), but she has a new boyfriend from camp, enthusiastic jock-singer E.J. (Matt Cornett). To get her back, Ricky decides to audition for the Efron-esque heartthrob role in the school musical, somehow eventually scoring the part and creating the necessary conflicts to sustain a 10-episode first season. Think a sexless Glee.  

I'm not sure why we're supposed to invest in Ricky and Nini as a couple. After all, Ricky callously broke up with her upon listening to the love song she wrote for him and is now retreating into semi-stalker territory to make sure they're spending long rehearsal hours together as romantic leads. At least the supporting characters add a bit of pungency. Larry Saperstein gets laughs as Ricky's dim ginger BFF, Big Red (yep, that's his name), and Julia Lester stands out as E.J.'s hidden talent songwriter cousin, Ashlyn.

Unfortunately, Nini's bestie Kourtney (Dara Reneé) is reduced to a walking trope whose entire personality is Angry Feminist. (I never thought a Disney show would joke about "dismantling the patriarchy," but it definitely also feels like there's a "TM" glued to the end of that line.)

More overtly comedic than the original, HSM: The Musical: The Series has no qualms about harpooning the fandom. As one teen character confesses in a talking head, "I’ve seen the first movie 37 times and the first 15 minutes of both sequels." (The characters also consistently refer to Vanessa Hudgens as "V Hudge," which… lol.) There's an edginess here devised to amuse a young, if sophisticated, digital native audience, as characters occasionally indulge in casual bleeped-out cursing and constantly reference real-life social media platforms.

The series also dips its toe into veiled queerness: Nini is parented by two moms and a masculine-presenting kid is cast to play a female HSM role originated by Ashley Tisdale. The character, Seb (Joe Serafini), speaks to the camera about being a little "different" from their farming family, which we're meant to interpret as subtext about their gender/sexuality.

On the flip side, Disney+'s 10-episode short series Forky Asks a Question is a complete waste of time. Forky, the plastic Frankenstein's Monster forged from pipe cleaners, googly eyes and a disposable fork, gained a bit of a cult following after his debut in this summer's Toy Story 4. Going on the existential titles of the three-minute long episodes — such as "What Is Money?" and "What Is a Friend?" — I expected the series to be a child's version of an NPR podcast, showcasing abbreviated, audience-appropriate explanations of big concepts.

Instead, I discovered there's a lot more telling than showing here, and a lot more joking than educating, as Forky (Tony Hale) bobbles around for maximum slapstick without getting (or giving) any clear answers at all. But hey, at least one of the episodes relies on good-old fashioned sexist humor about gossiping housewives for its main joke! Skip this, which feels like cutting-room-floor webisode content straight out of 2007. Fork off.

Premiere: Tuesday (Disney+)