NBC’s new melodrama Rise has everything it needs to succeed. It has a great showrunner in Jason Katims (Friday Night Lights, Parenthood); a solid enough cast with Josh Radnor, Rosie Perez; and a great set of kids; and a strong premise. It’s Friday Night Lights plus Parenthood plus Glee, and it has all the right ingredients to fill the slot vacated by This Is Us on NBC’s Tuesday line-up.
But the series needs to dial it back. A lot. It needs to be a lot less Glee and a lot more like Friday Night Lights. It needs to zero in on the more naturalistic elements, tone down the drama considerably, stick to one or two storylines at a time, and stop trying to force the tears. Let it happen naturally; allow the characters to do the work, and stop Ryan Murphy-ing the shit out of everything.
Loosely based on the true story of Lou Volpe encapsulated in the 2013 book Drama High written by Michael Sokolove, Rise is set in small-town Pennsylvania where the steel mills have been shuttered and football is still king. Here, English teacher Lou Mazzuchelli (Josh Radnor) decides to commandeer the drama department away from Tracy Wolfe (Rosie Perez), who has been making safe productions for years (including Grease, four of the last ten years). He wants to shake things up by putting on a modern production of Frank Wedekind’s Spring Awakenings (per the true story), but he runs into immediate trouble with the head football coach when he steals the star QB to play the lead. He doesn’t make any friends, either, by casting the two best actors in the high school in supporting roles while promoting an unproven but promising teen girl (the fantastic Auli’i Cravalho) into the lead. Meanwhile, one of his actors has been cast as a gay character, and he is having an internal crisis about his sexual orientation while his super religious parents are trying to keep him out of the play.
That would be enough to sustain the show for a few episodes, at least. But Katims also throws in a transgender teen in the midst of his transition; an alcoholic son; funding issues; conflicts between the drama department and the football team, as well as between Lou and the football coach; an affair between the football coach and the lead actress’s single mom; and a kid who does lighting who has been living in the school after bouncing from foster home to foster home.
Each one of those stories could sustain its own episode, or two, but Katims tries to cram it all in along with the occasional musical number and a rousing speech. I am very susceptible to this kind of emotional manipulation but even I feel worked over by Rise. It’s too much, and I don’t think it’s entirely Katims’ fault. Rise feels like a victim of network meddling, like NBC execs demanded that he tell all the representation stories at the same time. There are some great stories to be told here, about sexual identity, about the socioeconomics of a small town, about how kids are leading the way politically, about how football and drama can save these students; and about family dysfunction. But each of these stories should be given room to breathe — you can’t fit them all into 42 minutes.
I don’t hate the casting of Ted Mosby here, either, but I also recognize that he’s absolutely not the best choice, and regardless of his noble intentions, I’m not keen on the idea of a white dude taking a successful enough drama program away from a Latina just because he is unhappy in his own job. The roles might have been better reversed, or better yet, a guy like Daveed Diggs could have provided a lot more dynamism than Mopey Mosby, who looks like the grown-up version of one of those kids who refused to stand for Robin Williams at the end of Dead Poets Society. (I don’t know what to think, either, about the fact that Lou Volpe, the real-life character Radnor’s Lou is based on, was a closeted gay man, because I guess it’s possible (though unlikely) that Radnor’s character could come out in subsequent seasons). Also, the alcoholic son? That’s a third season storyline, at best, and here there is absolutely no foundation for it.
Nevertheless, I’ll probably stick with it. There’s the promise of a decent show here, and I have enough faith in Katims that he may be able to figure his way to it. He just needs to let up, slow down, and follow the story where it takes him instead of manufacturing more drama than is necessary for a single hour of television.