This is an advance review of Disney Plus' Encore, which will premiere when the service launches on November 12. For more on Disney+, check out our reviews for The World According to Jeff Goldblum, High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, The Imagineering Story, Forky Asks a Question, Marvel's Hero Project, Lady and the Tramp, and Noelle, as well as critics' spoiler-free reactions to The Mandalorian. Plus, find out how to watch Disney Plus on your consoles, and explore all the classic shows and movies coming to Disney+ at launch.
Do you feel like high school was the highlight of your life? Are there things you wish you could go back and change? Were you (or are you) an unabashed theater geek? If you answered yes to any of the above, you are likely the target audience for Disney Plus’ new reality series Encore! For everyone else, it’s admittedly a rather niche show, but amid all the big name releases like The Mandalorian and Lady and the Tramp, Encore! is an inspiring enough jaunt, though it doesn’t reach the same heights as personality-driven unscripted shows like Queer Eye or Extreme Makeover.
Here’s how it works: Kristen Bell appears briefly at the beginning to introduce the concept. Producers reunite adults from the same high school and give them just five days to restage a musical they did together decades earlier. There's no competition or prize: the satisfaction of the reunion and performing again is the main point. The reasons for why these former performers return are varied, and sometimes even heartwrenching. Many of them feel disconnected from the arts they used to love. Some have become bogged down in parenthood or their dreary nine to five jobs. Some of them never pursued the arts further because it just didn’t seem like a viable option, and so they set aside their dreams of being on stage professionally.
“The year 1996 was definitely one of the highlights of my life,” one of the participants says in the first episode. There’s a certain degree of pathos hanging over the whole show, as these adults reconnect with people they used to be close with, and do something that used to be a major part of their life. Reuniting with friends you stopped talking to, the first love who broke your heart, a passion that life forced you to give up: it’s sad! It’s relatable! Even for those who never participated in the arts in high school, these are familiar emotions and losses that many people have experienced, and therein lies the biggest draw of the show.
Whether or not these adults actually still have acting and singing chops (if they ever did) is beside the point. It’s not really about judging their skills — and certainly some of them struggle with remembering lines and hitting notes. Rather, most of the show’s heart is found in the moments after they practice, when they’re sitting around and talking about where life took them after graduation.
The episodes attempt to broach the strains of adulthood, but in a way that doesn’t really allow for satisfying conclusions, given the hourlong, self-contained format. The first episode, for example, introduces Jeremy and Jaimie, the alpha male and queen bee of their high school whose romance fizzled out. At first it seems like a set-up for a 90210 style drama, but instead we learn how Jaime helped Jeremy through his battle with cancer. It’s a meaningful reveal, but the episode never really lets them connect again to discuss their past. Instead, we focus on a confrontation between Jeremy and the make-up artist, as he struggles through not wanting to shave his head for the role of Daddy Warbuck in Annie because he feels it will make him look like he has cancer. It’s an important interaction, but it leaves his relationship with Jaimie oddly unresolved. (Arguably, real life rarely allows relationships to be tied up neatly anyway, but presented in the context of similar types of unscripted shows, it feels a little jarring.)
The entire format of the show is also a big question mark: five days is a very short amount of time for a group of out-of-practice individuals to reconnect with each other and learn how to perform an entire musical. It’s a framing device that seems designed to push the adults to their limits and elicit the tears that every makeover show inevitably has, and feels a bit unfair to the performers: each episode is a standalone, and so every single piece of tension and drama has to unfold and resolve over the course of sixty minutes, on top of showing us the musical. It just doesn’t give the viewer enough time to deeply care about the myriad stories that each episode introduces – with the right cast of reunited performers, you could easily see the format being stretched out to follow one school’s Encore reunion playing out over the course of an entire season.
Despite the shortcomings of Encore’s format, it’s clear that each performer is having a blast reconnecting with their past, and it’s fun to get a peek into the personalities and interpersonal dynamics that motivate these former co-stars. Though Encore feels like it’s missing the mainstream appeal of a scripted series like Disney Plus’ High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, or a more focused unscripted show like Queer Eye, it still provides a sweet, well-intentioned venue for those wishing to reminisce about their teenage years and those quintessential high school experiences. The show doesn’t quite give each performer the story spotlight they deserve, but at least it gives them the taste of the limelight again.
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