Disney hatches a `High School Musical’ flop

The Walt Disney Company never has handled success very well. Surprisingly, abundance of imagination can lead to a hit, then absence of imagination can kill it dead.

Look no further than the “High School Musical” franchise. What started out as a cheap little TV movie one-off has turned into a pop culture behemoth, spawning a hugely popular made-for-TV sequel, an ice show, a touring stage version, a gazillion youth stage productions, a soon-to-be-released threequel on the big screen…and now one of the worst reality TV shows imaginable.

Musical theater actually made some reality TV inroads — as annoying as they might have been — with MTV’s “Legally Blonde the Musical: The Search for Elle Woods,” which actually did re-cast the lead in a floundering Broadway show and pumped up the box office and the youth popularity factor.

As if Disney’s “HSM” franchise needed any more attention, Disney-owned ABC launched a summer reality series called “High School Musical: Get in the Picture.” The idea was that talent scouts would scour the nation from coast to coast (Alaska and Hawaii included) and pick a dozen young performers (not all teens, but all teen-ish), many pulled from high school drama programs, to humiliate and eliminate week to week. Nick Lachey hosts, and he wanders in from time to time like the amiable guy from down the street who hopes someone will give him a beer.

And the prize? Well, that’s a good question. It’s not money (oops, goodbye ratings). It’s not exactly fame (hello ratings basement). You have to pay attention to even figure out what the prize is: appearing in the closing credits of High School Musical 3. What? Oh, and they might get a recording contract with Disney — as the legal experts put it, you win a “talent hold.”

I’ve been watching, hoping there was something theatrically blog-worthy about the show, but it’s a waste of time. I feel sorry for these kids, many of whom are quite talented. Clearly ABC-Disney has spent a load of money on this thing, but try as they might to drum up drama and cat fights and romantic hook-ups, it all just fizzles.

The only redeeming part of the show is the performances by the kids. Though given horrible coaching, lame storylines and terrible blocking by their “expert coaches,” the young performers do well. The show is a huge cheat (what a surprise) because we supposedly see the kids sitting in empty rooms “rehearsing” with each other, then when it comes time for the performance, they’re moving around a fully built-out set, having blocked every movement and spent time singing along with the pre-recorded music. Clearly we never see any of the real rehearsal.

And the songs. Ick. Sometimes the producers are smart and choose Ben Folds or Jason Mraz. In the last episode, “Connect,” here’s the rundown: “I Don’t Wanna Be” (Gavin DeGraw), “Austin” (Blake Shelton), “Boston” (Augustana), “Bleeding Love” (Leona Lewis) and “One Year Six Months” (Yellowcard).

Then, after the kids perform, the coaches basically rip them apart — not to their faces but to the camera. At the end of the episode (the next one is tonight, Monday, Aug. 18), two kids are relegated to “the chorus.” That means they stay on at this prestigious school of fake TV arts, but they don’t get to work with the really talented kids. The whole point is supposed to be that winning is only the BEST part — the real humiliation comes in small increments throughout the journey.

Sticking talented kids in a lame reality series nominally tied to a Disney franchise really is a new low for reality TV and for Disney, a company that should know better.

Visit the official Web site, watch full episodes and behind-the-scenes clips and see the horror for yourself at: abc.go.com/primetime/highschoolmusical

Here’s my favorite contestant, crazy Bailey:

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