The Wildcats face bombshells and betrayals when the drama gets real on High School Musical: The Musical: The Series 3×05, “The Real Campers of Shallow Lake.”
This episode has it all — from layered writing and impressive camera work to great physical comedy and effective emotional beats. HSMTMTS reaches a fever pitch of angst, humor, and drama as it embraces the formulaic storytelling of reality TV.
“The Real Campers of Shallow Lake” pulls back the curtain on itself with retrospective narratives that grant more depth to prior seasons’ arcs and springboard the characters into the rest of Season 3. Furthermore, HSMTMTS continues its tradition of making Frankie A. Rodriguez‘s Carlos a pivotal character in every fifth episode.
The archetypes cast by Carlos allow the campers to pull from genuine sources of inspiration to define their motivations that they may not permit themselves to access otherwise. For example, Val’s role as “the shrink” frames Ashlyn’s unfounded frustration with Val as an expression of Ashlyn waiting for the love she needs.
That context adds to the story this season is presumably telling about Ashlyn’s sexuality.
Ricky’s role as “the jilted ex” creates space for him to confront his unresolved feelings for Gina more explicitly than ever, specifically during the “What Do You Know About Love?” performance and a scandalous hot mic. Joshua Bassett is fantastic throughout this episode; Ricky’s feelings for Gina are written all over his face.
The Ricky and Gina scene outside the barn is a prime example of Ricky’s inability to hide his feelings and the internal conflict that causes.
His statement that it’s hard to say what you feel is as loaded as the pause that lingers between Ricky and Gina afterward. Gina knows firsthand how hard it is to admit one’s feelings. She did it in Season 1 when she thought she was leaving Salt Lake, which “The Real Campers of Shallow Lake” calls back to with this.
This conversation and Ricky’s admission to Carlos confirm that Ricky does hold a torch for Gina, as EJ suggests for their “fake” scenario. That verification gives more nuance to Ricky’s bizarre behavior around Gina last season. All of which reinforces how relevant it is to explore Ricky’s feelings for Gina rather than only the inverse.
“What Do You Know About Love?” is a fun way to do so. The camera captures the Frozen number in nearly one shot, essentially only pulling away from Gina and Ricky’s electric chemistry to catch the eyebrow-raising reactions. The smooth direction coincides with Val’s comment that they’ve barely rehearsed this song, yet Gina and Ricky are seamless.
The easy-going production style of Gina and Ricky’s duet juxtaposes the heightened fairy tale of Gina and EJ’s duet on HSMTMTS 3×04, “No Drama.” That distinction works in favor of how “The Real Campers of Shallow Lake” follows the side-effects of EJ and Gina losing their rose-colored perception of their perfect summer together.
The best arguments in storytelling are the ones where both sides are viable; HSMTMTS has that with this one between EJ and Gina. It plays well because Gina’s reaction to Cash’s letter is as understandable as EJ’s desire only to tell Gina about Saint Louis when he has a way out. After all, EJ knows Gina’s fear of people always leaving.
Their connection is why it’s compelling that Gina is the one who questions EJ’s progression when she learns the truth.
“The Real Campers of Shallow Lake” initially sidesteps EJ’s regression when he reaches out to Carlos and Val to manufacture drama for the documentary. This decision avoids EJ repeating history in the name of the “common good,” which could result in an apology tour similar to Season 1. Instead, the angst stems from the doubt about Gina’s belief in EJ.
Gina is the one who affirmed the personal changes EJ made in himself (and vice versa) last season. They grew separately and together in an arc that confirmed their commonalities as individuals and compatibility as a couple. So, it will be interesting to see if HSMTMTS lets Gina and EJ face this obstacle together or if they gotta go their own way.
There’s hope in the former because HSMTMTS believes EJ’s heart is in the right place, or else it wouldn’t cut to EJ, presumably calling in reinforcements (Nini?! Miss Jenn?!) to help his friends after Jet’s performance.
The framing of this episode’s final act is sublime in how it orbits around the power of music and Jet’s emotional ballad about his dynamic with Maddox. Kourtney’s reaffirming pep talk to Alex and Emmy doubles as one for herself as Kourtney wades through her anxiety. By telling them, Kourtney reminds herself that musical theater is worth it.
“The Real Campers of Shallow Lake” smartly switches gears to Ricky and Jet, who are both running from feelings they don’t quite know how to express.
Considering the show’s timeline, Ricky is one of the newest additions to the musical theater world, so it’s fitting for him to give this advice to Jet. It also works for this episode since Ricky remembers during “What Do You Know About Love?” that feelings can manifest via a song.
While Gina still hasn’t heard how Ricky feels, Maddox overhears Jet. “Right Place” doesn’t fill in all the gaps in Jet and Maddox’s brother/sister relationship. That challenge seems virtually impossible and would likely diminish the song’s authenticity. Adrian Lyles‘ performance within his musical performance is excellent because Jet’s frustration with himself and his effect on Maddox plays as genuine.
The involvement of younger Jet and Maddox gives their dynamic more history that HSMTMTS may not get to explore otherwise — if the characters’ roles don’t expand beyond Season 3. In addition, Ann Marie Pace‘s dreamy direction of “Right Place” gives the song the retrospective tone it deserves as Jet reflects on critical memories with his sister.
By the way, Joshua Bassett‘s physical comedy in Ricky’s reaction to Jed and Maddox being siblings is one of the funniest bits this season.
Ultimately, “The Real Campers of Shallow Lake” balances a lot, and much of its success rests on Frankie A. Rodriguez‘s ability to pull all the threads together. His showmanship shines alongside a cast and crew up for a challenge. Everyone flourishes in an episode that embraces a slightly more mature tone that pairs nicely with the characters’ growing maturity. HSMTMTS doesn’t need to stick to the status quo to succeed.
Other Fabulous Moments:
- Everyone’s reaction when Carlos says “bitch slap” is pure gold.
- How many photos do we think Ashlyn took of EJ in the reindeer costume?
- “I think I broke the children” is one of Frankie A. Rodriguez‘s best line readings.
- Kourtney and Carlos simultaneously looking over their shoulders after she slapped him is another example of why that duo is unmatched.
- “But I’m not leaving Salt Lake without a fight.” Who else cheered?
- Gina said “totally different summers,” and “Different Summers” from Camp Rock 2 started playing in my head.
- EJ’s name actually being Elton John is better than any joke that it could be.
- It’s comical that Joshua Bassett and Matt Cornett sold that slap better than they did the basketball mishap in Season 1. I love this show!
What did you think of HSMTMTS 3×05, “The Real Campers of Shallow Lake?” Let us know in the comments below!
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