The star, who played female lead Nini on the show opposite Joshua Bassett’s Ricky, had already been a diminished presence on Disney+’s High School Musical spinoff before the final season kicked off this week without her. In Season 1, Nini was the main girl, the Gabriella to Ricky’s Troy—literally. They were cast in the school musical (ironic for East High, a production of High School Musical) as the new Vanessa Hudgens and Zac Efron.
In Season 2 of the mockumentary series, Rodrigo played a lesser role. Though Nini was still a main character, she was sent away to musical boarding school, meaning she spent less time with the other East High Wildcats. That said, Rodrigo wrote an original track (a banger) and was present in every episode, which is far more than what she did in Season 3 and 4.
Nini’s last appearance on the show in Season 3 saw her moving to California to meet her biological father. Then, after moving to California, she was essentially written off. Well, she was kind of written off the show. It’s more like the characters just pretend she never existed. From what I counted, she is only ever really mentioned once in this final season.
In Season 4, the drama club is wrapping up their HSM journey with a production of High School Musical 3. Is no one willing to recall how wonderful Nini was as Gabriella? Now that Gina (Sofia Wylie) has taken the spotlight as the leading lady, she’s obviously cast instead. If I were replacing someone as talented as Nini, I would study old videos of her performance as if I were practicing for the damn SAT. Nini was the blueprint.
Alas, the show treats Nini and Rodrigo’s departure as if there was some elephant in the room. This shouldn’t be the case. Rodrigo got her rocket launch to fame just like many young Disney stars do: through a schmaltzy Disney production. Efron and Hudgens now are majorly famous. Zendaya got her start on Shake It Up. Selena Gomez got big on The Wizards of Waverly Place. Miley Cyrus had Hannah Montana. Need I continue listing names?
Even if Rodrigo prematurely departed the show, Disney and HSM: TM: TS would be wise to lean into the fame she found since. She deserved a better write-off. Perhaps she made it big in the California music biz. Maybe she’s traveling on a musical tour. Something, anything to explain why she’s no longer in the series.
While the supporting cast does their best to make up for her absence, the show definitely suffered from losing her. Wylie is a fitting replacement—she’s as musically talented and Gina’s character is fun—but Nini was the core of the original show. She was also the “straight man” of the comedy, always the simpleton, always laughing at everyone’s antics. Her presence, along with her musical talent, is sorely missed.
This is not to say fans of the show—and even fans of Rodrigo—should avoid the final season of HSM: TM: TS. In fact, anyone who loves Rodrigo should watch the series to completion. The comedy is still a stunning portrayal of youth (and a rambunctious subsection of teens at that: theater kids) told in a unique, tongue-in-cheek format. Plus, it’s an honorable continuation of the High School Musical universe. Just don’t go in thinking that Rodrigo will make a small cameo in Season 4 of HSM: TM: TS. She’s not in it at all. Not even in a flashback.
And really, how upset can we be when she’s got a killer new single out and her sophomore album Guts is on the way? Though Rodrigo’s departure from her breakthrough series hurts, it’s at least comforting to know that she’s moved on to a big, bright future.