“What could make the tide turn? What could make the fire burn? A second chance is all.” Besides being the most embarrassing song on my Spotify Wrapped, “Second Chance” was a highlight of the “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” season 2 finale last July. As I looked at my planner a year later, I saw the faint gray words “HSMTMTS Season 3 premiere date” scribbled under July 27, with several hearts drawn around it.
Like many college-aged viewers (a startling majority of the audience, according to uncorroborated subreddit data), I found myself working in a research position for much of the summer. After spending countless hours charting the trajectory of Black women through higher education and navigating their stories of racism and resistance, “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” felt miles away from my world. The show, known for its lightheartedness and messages of hope, seemed startlingly dissimilar to the experiences I had been living and reading. As I reflected on the characterization of Gina Porter, however, I wondered if that world was really so far from my own.
The first season of the series focuses on Ricky Bowen’s (Joshua Bassett) journey to win back his girlfriend, Nini Salazar-Roberts (Olivia Rodrigo), after impulsively declaring he wants “a break” when she professes her love for him. The child of two parents in the midst of a divorce, Ricky is terrified by the L-word. While Nini spends her summer at theater camp, Ricky realizes how poorly he handled things. When they return to school in the fall, he is ready to make up with her. However, he is shocked to find she is dating someone else. Ricky plans to win Nini’s heart through committing to something she loves — the East High drama club’s production of “High School Musical.”
As Ricky and Nini’s story unfolds, it becomes increasingly clear that the real gem of East High is Gina Porter (Sofia Wylie). Gina is introduced as an ambitious transfer student who “doesn’t do dates” and strives for success. Surprised when she has been cast as Nini’s understudy, Gina strikes up an unlikely friendship with Ricky on the basis of their shared experience as outsiders — Gina as an outsider to East High and Ricky as an outsider to theater. She soon admits that Ricky intrigues her and later shares an intimate cheek kiss with him that has divided fans of the show ever since. However, their path to romance is short-lived. Gina’s mother, an employee at FEMA, is forced to move once again — a parallel to Gabriella Montez's character in the original “High School Musical” films. Gina regrets letting her walls down for him as she prepares to leave East High.
With an excuse to avoid addressing his feelings for Gina, Ricky focuses on his previous pursuit of Nini, practicing steadily for the upcoming performance. At the last minute, a friend purchases Gina a ticket to opening night, at which point Gina — convinced this is her last night at East High — confesses to Ricky that she is “only giving up on them” because she’s moving away. Ricky hugs her as she cries, but seconds after Gina leaves, Nini enters and reunites with Ricky. Therefore, during Gina’s time as East High, she is continually sidelined despite her talents. When she finally “fits in,” she is physically displaced and deprived of the opportunity to connect romantically with her love interest.
After an initial season spent riding the tumultuous waves of instability and being disliked by many of the characters for being “too ambitious for her own good” — a criticism frequently made of women of color — Gina permanently returns to the series in its second season by living in Salt Lake City with a castmate. At one point, Gina visits Ricky to discuss a difficult personal matter, and he silences her when Nini calls. It seems as if Ricky is completely ignoring Gina’s confession and feelings now that he is dating Nini again.
Gina eventually grows tired of Ricky’s behavior and severs communication with him at the end of season two — a decision the resulted in criticism from Ricky’s fans and fans of the show despite Ricky’s own negligent behavior. Their arc grows stale while Nini’s character follows Olivia Rodrigo’s real-life rocket to fame and discovers herself through her music, “outgrowing” her relationship with Ricky. Ricky similarly realizes he fought so hard for Nini simply because she was familiar, and he hates change. The two call it quits after they realize these tenets of their relationship are irreconcilable. Thus, Gina’s desires and relationship with Ricky were discarded. Why did Gina’s position as Ricky’s forgotten “second choice” feel so in line with the desperate need of Black women in higher education and other institutional spaces to make themselves seen? In all facets of our lives, it seems, Black women must redeem ourselves from the standard of invisibility.
Indeed, as I reacquainted myself with the outlandish events from the first two seasons, I realized the HSMCU (High School Musical Cinematic Universe) didn’t feel so far from my own life after all. What had drawn me to the series thus far was Gina's depth as a character. Constantly afraid to put down roots for fear of instability and rejection, Gina engages with many of the gendered and racial dynamics of navigating high school as a Black woman. Even the antagonistic construction of Wylie’s character reveals a unique tension ascribed to Black women in media representation. I wondered if season three would once again sideline the multi-talented Wylie, in line with Disney Channel’s trend of villainizing Black women (Amber in "Hannah Montana,” Uma in “Descendants 2,” Krista in 16 Wishes,”) and promoting of the “first loves always last” trope (“Liv and Maddie,” “Girl Meets World,” and “Hannah Montana”). In fact (aside from assisting in mild cell phone theft), Gina’s only crime was challenging the lead couple as Ricky’s potential love interest, and she was punished for it in the first two seasons.
Season three’s promotional content, however, reveals Sofia Wylie’s more active role in the season’s development. Tim Federle, the showrunner, frequently praises Wylie’s participation in the season — acknowledging her input in the costume design and Gina’s story arc. Season three’s first episode, “Happy Campers,” introduces Gina’s “summer of firsts,” including her first leading role in the camp production of “Frozen,” her first boyfriend, and her first time going to camp. The season sees Gina reconcile her ambition from season one with the relationship skills she developed in season two, as she comes to establish long-lasting friendships for the first time. At the center of season three is a love triangle between Gina’s current boyfriend, EJ, and a reflective and regretful Ricky: She is the star.
From where I sit, “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series”redeems itself from the predictability of its first two seasons by placing a young Black girl’s self-love at the heart of the third season. As a Black woman watching Gina make the decision to get braids and return to her ambitions, season three is like a breath of fresh air for me. It acknowledges our agency and the pockets of happiness that exist in our lives through the lens of a talented Black actress. Disney Channel could certainly have introduced Gina as the show’s lead. However, her character charts a very realistic arc marked by mischaracterization on the basis of race and gender. I hope the third season allows Gina to reconcile the various intersections of her identities in a way that finally celebrates her. Then, maybe, viewers can give “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series”a second chance.