The appeal of the Disney+ reality TV series Encore! isn’t really the fact that Kristen Bell hosts, or that a group of high school musical theater performers reunite decades after they’ve graduated and moved on with their lives to put on the same show as adults. Instead, it’s that the series uses the hook of high school musical productions to engage in a little corporate synergy with the nascent streaming service’s High School Musical: The Musical: The Series (yes, it’s really called that), and to mine some human drama from the lives of otherwise regular people who’ve changed in the same ways everyone does after leaving their formative years behind. In other words, Encore! is a way to jazz up and justify Disney hiring Kristen Bell to host a show about very small high school reunions.
There’s little doubt that Encore! will appeal to the High School Musical crowd and those who think Tom Hooper’s Cats is worthy of an unironic ticket purchase. But for those hoping to spend some time with Disney+ on launch day doing more than watching The Mandalorian over and over again, or digging into the Disney vault, it might be something of a hard sell. To that end, the show seems to understand its rather niche appeal and does what it can to capitalize on that aspect in some interesting and surprisingly humane ways.
The first episode takes an hour-long journey with classmates from California's Santana High School, who performed Annie 23 years ago. It follows the cast members as they reunite and inform the audience what they’ve been doing for the past two decades. It’s a hasty download of information as the episode must move through several days of rehearsals as the now-adult cast members rehearse with actual Broadway professionals in order to put on a more or less slap-dash rendition of the musical they performed so many years ago.
Again, the musical theater aspect is secondary to what Encore! actually excels at: exploring the emotions of the real-life people it’s spending time with and occasionally discovering some unresolved feelings and lingering tensions from those formative years. Case in point, the premiere episode introduces Jeremy, who played Daddy Warbucks in high school and also dated the homecoming queen Jaimie, who plays Miss Hannigan. Jeremy is introduced as a prototypical alpha male who has since become a sheriff’s deputy. The series leans into his past relationship with Jaimie and the fact that it didn’t end well between them, setting up some potential drama that may or may not derail the 2019 Santana High School production of Annie.
It’s surprising, then, that Encore! proves to be so nimble, as it swerves wildly from potential Bachelor-like drama to a much more humanistic story of Jeremy’s battle with cancer while he was in high school and the ways in which Jaimie helped him through his long treatment and eventual recovery. Unfortunately, the episode never quite finds time for the two of them to really reconnect and discuss what the other means to them, and in doing so must rely on Jeremy’s emotional reaction to the possibility of shaving his head for the part of Daddy Warbucks. The tradeoff is admittedly less compelling and dramatic, but it reveals the show’s intentions when it comes to putting these people face-to-face with potentially painful memories.
Encore! offers a repeat performance with another cast member, who discusses his issues from a tough childhood that made him question whether or not he wanted to be a father. Meanwhile, the woman who plays the title role of Annie actually moved to New York City to work on Broadway, and did so before opting to start a family and move back to California. There’s more than a hint of what could have been as she slips back into character and spends a week rehearsing to relive a high school moment that nearly became her career. It effectively builds anticipation for an emotional release that ultimately never comes. Jeremy, the least likely of any of the cast to experience some kind of emotional breakthrough is ultimately the only one who convincingly grapples with those moments from his past, as the episode simply doesn’t have time to explore each person in detail and watch them put on a show.
Ultimately, the problem with Encore! is one of time and the limitations of a one-hour show happening upon more real-life drama than was expected. The series needed to have spent more time with the classmates to better address their shared histories, where they are now, and what it means to do an encore decades after the curtain fell.
Encore! premieres Tuesday, November 12 on Disney+.