High School Musical: The Musical: The Series 3×01, “Happy Campers,” embraces the summer of change and Disney Channel nostalgia when the Wildcats trade East High’s halls for Camp Shallow Lake’s cabins. This season premiere lets this dramedy get back to what makes Season 1 such a sensation, including deadpans to the camera and talking heads.
“Happy Campers” utilizes the drive to Camp Shallow Lake to sprinkle in exposition about missing Wildcats and kick off the season’s musical journey with a mash-up that would make Glee jealous. Ashlyn, Carlos, EJ, Gina, and Kourtney sing High School Musical 2‘s “What Time Is It” and Camp Rock‘s “Start the Party,” and the songs couldn’t be better picks!
EJ and Gina’s verses as Troy and Gabriella work so well it’s almost like they’re the leads of this musical, but “Happy Campers” lets every character channel main character energy.
For example, Ricky gets the full music video treatment with “Finally Free” — the standout song of the premiere. The song, stunningly co-written and produced by Joshua Bassett himself, is a perfect companion song to Ricky’s song “Let You Go” from last season. It logically continues Ricky’s journey to independence — this time from Lily.
Thankfully, HSMTMTS quickly nips any possibility of Ricky and Lily in the bud by forcing her hand and revealing Ricky’s Beast harness from Season 2. The confrontation scene is dramatic in content and score because of the severity of the betrayal, but HSMTMTS never lets its comedy fade. It acknowledges Lily’s absurdity to speak in HSM song titles one minute and thinks she would get away with lying to Ricky in the next.
That’s a delicate balance to strike, but that’s the magic of HSMTMTS. For instance, the show’s meta-nature ensures it’s not cheesy when Ricky hears himself on the radio singing “Finally Free.” Also, it’s a musical dramedy — suspending disbelief is part of the game.
The scene that wouldn’t work on any other show plays as Ricky hearing the song — his song — when he needs it most. This summer is supposed to be the one that changes everything, and Ricky will always remember “Finally Free” as a formative song in his coming-of-age story when he embraces his freedom for the first time in a long time.
Nini is also on her journey of embracing independence and a great, big new chapter. The reason Nini seeks out Miss Jenn is flimsy in execution, but it works in the long run when Miss Jenn tells Nini that “disruptive” things don’t have to be bad. That sentiment serves Nini’s journey, but it underscores the rest of the Wildcat’s journeys, too.
A summer spent at Camp Shallow Lake disrupts their usual schedules, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be a predominantly fulfilling experience.
Namely, EJ is acutely aware of his childhood transforming into young adulthood during this last summer before college. That self-awareness peaks through EJ’s infectious and unbridled joy about returning to Camp Shallow Lake with Gina and some of the Wildcats. Matt Cornett walks that fine line well all the way to the final seconds of “Happy Campers,” when EJ suddenly receives immense responsibility as the new director of Frozen.
Even without literally framing EJ/Gina/Ricky as a potential love triangle, that final blow is a good twist for a teen show. Compounding that external stressor with the internal tension of a possible love triangle is the perfect cocktail of drama to kick off a season. However, Ricky’s “Finally Free” paired with EJ and Gina’s stability as a couple suggest that the love triangle won’t arise (or revive) overnight — if it all.
That framing could be a way to play on EJ and Gina’s fears about their perfect summer falling apart. However idyllic Camp Shallow Lake is on the surface, “Happy Campers” throws in tongue-in-cheek references to scary happenings, like Kourtney’s “I know what you did last summer” line to EJ or Carlos asking about a “blood sacrifice.”
Whether those amount to anything, “Happy Campers” certainly showcases EJ and Gina as a happy and healthy couple who are head over heels for each other. In addition, Sofia Wylie and Cornett’s chemistry is even better than last season, which is a testament to their talent because Portwell’s arc in Season 2 is impressive.
Wylie seamlessly dials into the tenderness of Gina’s open heart after HSMTMTS 2×12, “Second Chances.” It’s exciting to see her lean into her tercet (Ashlyn and Kourtney) after a long journey of learning to accept and foster female friendships.
The Honeycomb cabin the girls stay in is nothing like the cabin from Camp Rock, yet HSMTMTS perfectly captures its vibes. The establishing shots of Camp Shallow Lake parallel the ones from the 2008 DCOM in the best ways. Likewise, the stage that Maddox performs on feels like the one from Camp Rock; the nostalgia bursts are undeniable.
Then, Jason Earles walks on stage as the grumpy Dewey Wood before Corbin Bleu joins him as a heightened, jaded version of himself, and it’s impossible not to think about the Disney Channel history shared between the two men. For example, Bleu appeared in the pilot of Hannah Montana in 2006 — a few months after High School Musical premiered.
It’s an extra layer of meta on top of Bleu directing the show about the show — the show about the campers putting on Frozen. Also, it’s fantastic that HSMTMTS is far enough into its run that it can be self-referential beyond the HSM/Disney source material. Camp Shallow Lake is a part of HSMTMTS‘ history, so it comes to Season 3 with its unique ties to the characters — to EJ and Nini, specifically.
That history gives EJ more of a leading role than he ever got in an East High musical. Furthermore, it brings Nini into the fold even when she’s not at camp. Her time at Camp Shallow Lake changed her ahead of the Season 1 premiere. It’s where she met EJ, creating more romantic drama upon returning to East High post the break with Ricky.
Moreover, EJ and Nini’s time at Camp Shallow Lake is where they found themselves, and now many more Wildcats will experience that special, transformative summer. It’s the summer that they wanted, and now they finally got it — all for one.
Other Fabulous Moments:
- Carlos and Kourtney are an underrated duo.
- Ashlyn should prove Maddox wrong and write to Big Red every day.
- Is EJ’s nickname Rocketman because his initials are the same as Elton John’s?
- Ricky’s annoyance about Lily inexplicably and repeatedly calling him “Richie” is hilarious.
- Ben Stillwell (Corbin’s cameraman) is a Disney Channel alum in his own right!
- Jet is giving major Shane Gray in Camp Rock vibes!
- Frankie A. Rodriguez‘s pronunciation of Bleu is a comedic beat everyone needs to talk about forever.
What did you think of HSMTMTS 3×01, “Happy Campers?” Let us know in the comments below!
New episodes of High School Musical: The Musical: The Series premiere Wednesdays on Disney+!