This review was written after viewing the pilot episode and will feature some key elements of the plot. Season one of ‘Rise’ will feature 10 episodes.
From the opening shot of NBC’s new midseason series Rise, you will know you are in Jason Katmis’ world. The series about a teacher who takes over his high school theater department was written by Katims, the brains behind the beloved football series Friday Night Lights, and it certainly feels like it. Now, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, Friday Night Lights was an amazing family drama as was Katmis’ follow up venture Parenthood, but it’s opening warm landscapes and small-town exterior shots of the show’s Pennsylvania steel town setting are just two of the many things that feel all too familiar about Rise. However, while it does often times feel like a “Glee meets Friday Night Lights” crossover, Rise is packed with potential from its story to its brilliant young cast. Also, any series that can easily incorporate Hamilton into the soundtrack is certainly worth the watch.
The series follows Lou Mazzuchelli (How I Met Your Mother’s Josh Radnor) as a high school English teacher searching for a bigger purpose, which he discovers lies in Stanton High’s drama department. Despite having no experience, Lou immediately gets the job, largely because the principal sees Tracy (Rosie Perez), the woman who was first in line for the position, as a “pain in the ass.” Tracy’s in the crux of Grease rehearsals with the kids when Lou waltzes in, announcing that he’s taking over the program and Grease will be hand-jiving its way out. Immediately showing his naivety, Lou decides that the controversial and provocative Spring Awakening is the perfect show for them to take on, despite living in a small town that will most likely object to the themes of suicide, abortion, and homosexuality that come along with it.
With Tracy now demoted to Assistant Director, the two should have a very entertaining and conflicted relationship throughout the season, but Lou’s brazen pipe dream to teach theater initially comes off as a slap in the face for Tracy, and possibly the audience, as she had clearly worked diligently hard for the position and is far more knowledgeable in the world of theater than Lou, who is ready to pull a Mr. Shuester and make himself the hero of this story.
The real shining light of the pilot though is the students. Rise has put together a beautiful and diverse cast of young actors all with their own unique stories to tell and conflicts to overcome. First, there’s Auli’i Cravalho (the voice of Moana) taking on the role of Lilette Suarez whose shy demeanor and stunning voice unexpectedly get her cast as the one of the Spring Awakening leads. Of course, by getting the role she dethrones Gwen Strickland (Amy Forsyth), and on top of that Lilette’s having to juggle a part-time waitressing job and the fact that her single mom (Shirley Rumierk) could be having an affair with Gwen’s dad – the football coach.
Yes, much like the football-obsessed FNL town of Dillon, Texas, football is also a huge deal in Stanton, PA. So much so, that the principal and Coach Strickland ask Lou to give their football star, Robbie Thorne (Damon J. Gillespie) some preferential treatment regarding a grade so that he can play in the homecoming game. However, after hearing Robbie rapping and singing at the pep rally that afternoon, Lou’s got other plans for him – audition for the lead role in the school play. If you’re getting High School Musical or Glee vibes once again, you aren’t alone. However, Gillespie is extremely likable as Thorne and does a great job of subtly relaying the pressure he’s feeling both on and off the field regarding school, football, theater, and his family. He’s a strong lead for both the play and the series and has one heck of a voice. He and Lilette will make a great pair as the two leads of Spring Awakening feeling extremely out of their league.
The rest of the young cast is rounded out by some amazing characters and actors as well. There’s Michael Hallowell (Ellie Desautels), a young trans student who finds comfort and acceptance with his theater friends, but less so on the outside. Simon (Ted Sutherland), a gay student living with a conservative Catholic family who ends up being cast as Hänschen, a character who has a love scene with another boy. While he’s open with his parents about wanting to do the play, it comes as no surprise that they aren’t quite as accepting of the material itself – a conflict that’s sure to follow Lou and Co. throughout the season. There’s also lighting guru Maashous Evers, who Lou discovers is living at the school and Stranger Things’ Shannon Purser.
What Rise gets right is its understated and respectful treatment of all of these young students (not to mention, the actors playing them actually look like high school students). They feel natural, sincere and warm, and upon meeting them all in the pilot, it’s easy to become invested in their stories. While it feels like a lot of characters coming to you at once, you’ll be able to see Spring Awakening coming to life right before your eyes. Much to my disappointment, there aren’t any grand musical numbers in the pilot episode, but we’re given just enough of a taste throughout the episode to know that those are coming and they are going to epic, hopefully helping to move the story along until that final curtain call.
The series will premiere right after NBC’s pride and joy This Is Us, which should carry over an audience that would easily become invested in the story that Rise is trying to tell, and even though the show does center around a high school theater department, there are certainly some potentially compelling adult characters that older audiences will enjoy as well.
Overall, despite hitting some familiar notes, Rise has the potential for longevity as long as it sticks to its strong points and keeps Radnor as a believable lead, shying away from weekly inspiring speeches (a la Mr. Shu), and instead focuses on letting the kids take the wheel.
Rise premieres tonight on NBC at 10:00 pm EST after This Is Us.