I went into Rise with high expectations because of the creative team behind it, which consists of Jason Katims (Friday Night Lights, Parenthood) and Jeffrey Seller (Hamilton). I now walk away from its 10-episode first season apathetic to almost everything that occurred.
Rise isn’t terrible, it’s just not very gripping and moves through plot lines with messy haste. It also bears a striking resemblance to Friday Night Lights in terms of it’s high school setting and shaky filming style that make it near impossible to avoid comparisons. Is that unfair? Maybe, but I found myself comparing the two, especially throughout the pilot, and Rise always came up short.
The series is based on a non-fiction book, Drama High by author Michael Sokolove, about Lou Volpe, a real-life drama teacher in Levittown, Pa., which has led the show to some controversy regarding the straight-washing of its central character. It’s set in the fictional town of Stanton and chronicles the staging of a musical production and the lives of those in the drama department.
The show focuses on Lou Mazzuchelli (Josh Radnor) who is so sanctimonious he puts Glee’s Will Schuester to shame. He takes a job away from Tracey Wolfe (Rosie Perez), who has been running the drama department for years, and decides that they will be putting on Spring Awakening, a rock musical set in 19th-century Germany about teenage sexuality, which goes just as well as you’d expect it to throughout the season. It’s amazing that someone who has supposedly been teaching in Stanton for 17 years is confused by the backlash he receives from the families in a conservative small town. The challenges that he and the department face are cliché and tiresome. Mad parents! Censored lyrics! No money! A killjoy principal! This production has it all!
The episodes all seem to end in a saccharine grand gesture that never pack the punch they’re trying for. The pilot features a scene where the drama department is burning costumes and props in the school parking lot, and my thoughts mostly consisted of how wasteful it seemed rather than whatever they were attempting to make me feel. It’s all a little too derivative for me to find any of the real emotion in it.
There are some aspects of Rise that I enjoyed, and they mostly involve Auli’i Cravalho who steals every scene she’s in. She’s given the best material to work with, including the relationship her character, Lilette, has with her mother, which feels grounded and worth exploring after a shaky start in the first half of the season. I also enjoyed the moving storyline involving one of the students, Simon (Ted Sutherland), who is coming to terms with his sexuality while living a religious household. Simon’s mother is played by Stephanie J. Block, who also gives an incredible performance. Amy Forsyth is outstanding as Gwen Strickland and deserves more than what she’s given.
Rise has ambition and some compelling storylines worth telling in this television landscape, but most are beset by the question, “Do I really care about any of this?” which you may find yourself asking around the tenth time you hear “Mama Who Bore Me.”
“Rise” premieres Tuesday, March 13 at 10 p.m. ET on NBC.