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“Rise” Just Doesn’t: NBC’s Musical-Theater High School Drama Is Friday Night Lite

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If you’re a die-hard fan of NBC’s late, great Friday Night Lights, you might feel a flutter in your stomach during the first minute or so of Rise, the hour-long drama that the network hopes might be to high school musicals what Friday Night Lights was to high school football. The opening moments of the new series, which premiered the first of its ten episodes on Tuesday, feel just like the opening credits of Friday Night Lights, with melancholy guitar music set over documentary-style, shaky-cam shots of small town life — in this case Stanton, Pennsylvania, a fictional fading steel town.

Alas, Rise is not the next Friday Night Lights, or even the next great teen drama. It’s more like Friday Night Lite. Based on a nonfiction book about a Levittown high school theater program, and created by former FNL writer Jason Katims and Broadway producer Jeffrey Seller, Rise has a nice message at its warm, gooey center: Every kid deserves a chance to shine. And if you’re a fan of Spring Awakening, the musical that Stanton High School’s drama program mounts throughout the course of the season, you won’t have a terrible time watching Rise. But everything about the series, from plotting to character development to tone, feels contrived, with every speck of subtext hauled up and nailed down to the show’s slick surface. (I’ve seen all ten episodes.) The issues Rise depicts don’t necessarily ring false. But it’s all pitched too high and played too big, as if the action were directed not toward your living room but to the cheap seats at the back of a theater. The writers manage to stuff the whole enchilada of modern adolescent angst into the series — it might have been dreamed up by some deranged showrunner version of Bill Hader’s SNL character Stefon, because this show has everything: Orphaned teens and pregnant teens and alcoholic teens and poor teens and closeted teens and trans teens, and a musical based on a nineteenth-century German play about sexually repressed teens. And economic anxiety.

Rise centers on Lou Mazzuchelli (Josh Radnor), an English teacher who takes the reigns of Stanton High’s theater program from Tracey Wolfe (Rosie Perez), who’s been running the department for the past decade. “They threw their theater program out the window to save a lousy two grand,” Tracey scoffs when she discovers the principal has approved Lou’s takeover only after cutting the show’s budget in half. For the lead role of Wendla in Spring Awakening, the edgy musical Lou chooses over the redoubtable Grease, Lou casts Lilette Suarez (the lovely Auli’i Cravalho, a/k/a Moana), who waits tables after school at the same diner where her single mother, Vanessa (Shirley Rumierk), works. From there, the hurdles keep coming: Vanessa, we soon learn, is having an affair with the school’s football coach (Joe Tippett), whose daughter, Gwen (Amy Forsyth), usually gets the lead in the school musical. Gwen soon finds herself drawn to Lou’s son, Gordy (Casey Johnson), who has an alcohol problem.

Meanwhile, Lou, maverick that he is, decides to cast star quarterback Robbie Thorne (Damon J. Gillespie) opposite Lilette, despite Tracey’s warning: “Do not cast football.” Oh, and I almost forgot: The pilot episode leaves room for Lou to discover a sweet, smart kid named Maashous (Rarmian Newton) who’s been sleeping in the auditorium’s lighting booth instead of his foster mother’s house. Lou brings Maashous home to his own family, and his wife, Gail (Marley Shelton), quickly forms a bond with him. Unfortunately for those hoping for a redux of the chemistry between FNL’s Coach Eric and Tami Taylor (Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton), the wife character here is just that: a wife character.

The biggest problem with Rise is its hero-worship of Lou, who is central to almost every bit of action in the series and yet is by far its least interesting, most insufferable character. (In the book that inspired the series, Michael Sokolove’s Drama High, the teacher Lou is based on eventually comes out to his wife as gay; the character the creators concoct reminds me of Milo Ventimiglia’s hero-dad figure on This Is Us, another treacly NBC drama.) Rosie Perez is great as the dedicated teacher who understands the restraints of her job and tries her best to work around them, but Rise’s creators clearly prefer Lou’s no-holds-barred, don’t-dream-it-be-it style of inspiration. Every time he opens his mouth, Lou gives yet another heartfelt speech about “those kids” and the transcendent power of art. He gets to be the guy yelling, “Dream big!” as the other, dully practical adults — not least of all Tracey, who is demoted to his deputy — insist that he tamp down his high expectations. On occasion the writers afford another character, usually a teacher, the opportunity to point out that Lou is being an ass. But his risks almost always pay off in the end, as if to suggest the problem with public education isn’t a lack of resources but a lack of passion and imagination. Lou appears to make his visions come true simply by believing in them hard enough.

Still, it is refreshing to see an earnest teen drama, one that doesn’t pile on layers of camp like Glee, or melodrama like Pretty Little Liars and Riverdale, or ironic misanthropy like The End of the F***ing World. When people say they miss Friday Night Lights, I suspect its clear-eyed sincerity is what they’re craving. And Rise has its moments. The musical set-up provides a showcase for some very talented young performers, particularly Cravalho and Forsyth, and the writers wisely resist the urge to make their characters rivals for the attention of Robbie, who’s crushing on Lilette before the two are cast as lovers. (Ironically, despite the principal’s concerns that their Spring Awakening scenes are too racy for high school, there’s barely a hint of sexual tension between Robbie and Lilette; their romance is Disney chaste.) By episode two, they’re on a date; by episode four, Robbie’s breaking up with his cheerleader girlfriend.

There’s not a lot of breathing room on this tightly plotted show, no space to get to know these kids outside the silos of their respective storylines. They’re going through real shit, but unlike the high schoolers on Friday Night Lights, we don’t know them well enough to feel its impact. Rise does a whole lot of telling, but very little showing: It pays lip service to its steel-town setting, but has no sense of place; and unlike the brilliant Canadian series Slings & Arrows, about the members of a Shakespearean theater company, the drama rarely revolves around the nitty-gritty of putting together a live show. The series is dictated not by the rhythms of real life but the pressures of a ten-episode network series.

Rise airs 9 p.m. on Tuesdays on NBC.

 

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