Rise wants to be an inspiring drama. More accurate to describe it, unfortunately, as a drama about wanting to be inspirational. In a small American town that used to make steel before it made heroin addicts, a teacher has a dream. Lou Mazzuchelli (Josh Radnor) wants to take over the theater department, even though he hasn’t done anything with theater since his summer camp days, even though his qualifications come down to “knowing the lyrics to the most #basic Hamilton song.” (Track 1 on the soundtrack? C’mon, Lou, get to the Cabinet Battles!)
Lou gets the job, even though fellow teacher Tracey Wolfe (Rosie Perez) has worked with the drama department for years. And where Tracey was already prepping yet another performance of Grease, Lou’s got big ideas. He wants to stage Spring Awakening, the Duncan Sheik/Steven Sater musical. And he wants to skip drama-club regulars to cast two first-timers in the lead roles: Lilette (Auli’i Cravalho), who dreams of leaving her small town for the big time, and Robbie (Damon J. Gillespie), the quarterback, because after High School Musical and Glee, it would be more shocking if the star athlete didn’t sing.
Cravalho and Gillespie are endearing performers, playing endearing characters. They’re surrounded by an ensemble of endearments. Gwen (Amy Forsyth) is a somewhat mean-ish girl who’s not really that mean and is very talented. Simon (Ted Sutherland) is used to being the star and is extremely concerned about playing a fifth lead with a gay love scene; his parents are devout Catholics, and he’s figuring out his own orientation in the stumbling way kids figure out everything. And would you believe that lighting technician Massshous (Rarmian Newton) looks like James Dean if James Dean had Harry Potter’s hair, and he’s having problems with his foster parent, and he needs a place to live, and Lou brings him home?
You feel that some edges have been sanded off here. In the three episodes I watched, there’s not much talk of bullying, very little sense of transgression when someone from Social Group A announces their intention to align with Social Group B. One of the Spring Awakening performers is a transgender teen (Ellie Desautels) who’s at that particular point of a transition when he decides which gendered dressing room he’ll be using. Everyone is very supportive when he walks into the guys’ dressing room; actually, it’s basically a non-issue, greeted with shrugging acceptance by the high school’s star quarterback.
Cool! Modeling kindness can be part of a show’s mission statement, even if it can push drama from emotional realism into something more aspirational. Viewed from my distant old-millennial perch, being a teenager today seems just awful: internet trolls, parents who speak a different kind of digital language, all your favorite YouTube stars trending problematic. There’s something refreshing about how Rise mostly jumps past obvious interpersonal drama to a generous place where the disparate teens are a unified theater troupe, all for one, one for all.
But there’s a problem: The adults won’t get out of the way. Lou has that weird Mr. Schuester problem that good teachers never actually have, where everything starts to be all about him, and his journey. When Simon comes to Lou with concerns — about his parents, his reduced star status, and himself — Lou proudly tells Simon, “This is my chance to get out from behind this desk and make an impact!” Lou’s prone to big speeches, but doesn’t seem to grasp the most basic aspects of theater craft. “I may not know stage left from stage right,” he tells Gwen. “I may never know. It’s really confusing.” It’s really not! And there’s something immediately empty in how Rise takes Lou’s inspirational qualities for granted. During his audition, Robbie gives a bad performance, because he’s never acted before. “Just be yourself, just be natural,” Lou tells him, and hey, presto, Robbie can act now! Good directin’ there, Teach!
Rise comes from Jason Katims, the sensitive showrunner behind Friday Night Lights and Parenthood. There’s a familiar naturalism with the younger performers — and then an awkward lack of authenticity when the show shifts to their parents and teachers. The second episode of Rise actually features a subplot about how the football team’s attempt to build a Jumbotron is affecting the rest of the school’s budget — just like Friday Night Lights season 3. The different outcomes are very telling: On FNL, the outcome of the Jumbotron plot was tough-hearted, a little brutal, funny only if you can laugh at how often the bad guys win. On Rise, the first mention of the Jumbotron leads to a speech by Tracey about the importance of art. “What does football do,” she asks, “but give these kids concussions?”
A thoughtful sentiment — and then there’s no follow-up comment, no reaction from the assembled multitudes who presumably care a little about football. At times like this, Rise seems uninterested in its own best instincts, willing to bring up complicated ideas but unwilling to carry them over the finish line. The fact that Tracey actually does know a million times more about drama makes Lou’s presence feel even less essential; you feel that, from her perspective, this is a show about a mediocre male just taking the job she worked hard to earn. Meanwhile, there’s a lengthy thread about how Lilette’s mom is maybe having an affair with Gwen’s dad, a subplot that mainly serves to remind you how much more you’d like to spend time with Gwen and Lilette.
And Rise goes further off-book with deviations into Lou’s home life. He’s got a wife (Marley Shelton), two adorable daughters, and a son named Gordy (Casey Johnson) struggling with substance abuse. It’s a lot to take in, even before Lou just sorta adopts Masshous as a spur-of-the-moment act of kindness. Rise is sweet when it watches its teens put on a show. But it falls when it insists the real hero is the guy convincing them to be themselves. B-