Rise is definitely a mixed bag. In some ways, it’s exactly the kind of show you’d expect from the creator of Parenthood. In other ways, it doesn’t hold a candle to the quality of that show. That being said, Rise is an enjoyable show with a pilot that does a poor job selling the show’s qualities. From Jason Katims, executive producer and showrunner of “Friday Night Lights” and “Parenthood,” and “Hamilton” producer Jeffrey Seller, comes a heartening new drama about finding inspiration in unexpected places. When dedicated teacher Lou Mazzuchelli (Josh Radnor) sheds his own self-doubt and takes over the school’s lackluster theater department, he galvanizes not only the faculty and students but the entire working-class town. The cast includes Josh Radnor, Rosie Perez, Auli’i Cravalho, Damon J. Gillespie, Marley Shelton, Rarmian Newton, Ted Sutherland, Amy Forsyth, Casey W. Johnson, Taylor Richardson, Joe Tippett, and Shirley Rumierk. This review contains very minor and vague spoilers for the show (no major spoilers will be revealed, but general elements from the entire season will be discussed)Poor NBC has been trying to crack the Glee formula since Glee first started airing nearly a decade ago. Their first attempt, Smash, started off strong and then quickly devolved into melodramatic nonsense (disclaimer: I adored, and will endlessly defend, Smash until I die). Rise starts of as melodramatic nonsense before finally elevating itself to something interesting and unique. If you’ve ever seen one of Jason Katims’ shows before, you know what you’re getting into with Rise. It’s very schlocky and cheesy and melodramatic, but at the end of the day, you end up rooting for the characters enough that you’re brought onboard with the schlock. The main reason his previous shows have ended up working was the chemistry between the various members of his cast. The same is true with Rise only the pilot episode doesn’t do a great job displaying that. With the first episode of Parenthood (my favorite of Katims’ shows), the emphasis was solely on the chemistry and interactions between the characters. The schlock came much later in that show and by the time it had settled in, we’d all already fallen in love with the characters. With Rise, the schlock comes hard and fast long before we’re given a chance to connect with the characters. From the moment the pilot begins, we’re hit with what feels like a bad mashup of This is Us and Glee. This feeling lasts the rest of the pilot and into the second and third episodes. But by the fourth episode, the characters (and the actors portraying them) finally start to shine and the schlock becomes easier to swallow as we’re finally connecting with, and rooting for, the characters. Rise was advertised as a musical TV show, in the vein of Glee or Smash. It’s not. It’s a show about a high school putting on a musical, but not an actual musical TV show. The only songs sung by the cast (as of the midway point of the season) are from the musical Spring Awakening, the musical that the high school in the show is staging. At most, each episode features one song from the musical and that’s it. This isn’t a problem, necessarily, but it is something to be aware of. I went into this show thinking it would be a musical and it’s not. That being said, what music there is is very good. NBC was smart in making sure that the actors cast as the high school students could all sing. Auli’i Cravalho, fresh off her success as Moana in Disney’s film of the same name, leads the group of high schoolers and is probably the best sounding of all of them. Not that that’s a surprise to anybody who saw Moana, though. The rest of the actors cast as the students are equally talented. In fact, the cast NBC assembled for the fictional production of Spring Awakening in the show is a cast I would absolutely love to see in an actual production of the show. In fact, the majority of what Rise does with Spring Awakening is something I’d want to see done. The set design is super smart (and ends up being a very clever plot element of one of the later episodes). The show explores the risks of doing a show like Spring Awakening at a high school in a smaller, more conservative town. The risks are pretty obvious and I feel like nobody in their right mind would actually do this show as a first attempt at making their school’s theatre department riskier in real life, but whatever, it’s a TV show. The staging of the excerpts of the show we see are great. There’s only one problem I have with how they did Spring Awakening and it’ll be readily apparent to anybody familiar with the musical. It happens in the finale and you’ll know it when you see it (or, hear it). On that note, let’s discuss the cast. This show relies heavily on its cast. The cast is the only reason this show succeeds at all (as we’ll discuss a bit later). There’s no weak link in this cast. Josh Radnor is the lead and he suffers from my inability to separate him from his How I Met Your Mother character (and how that show ruined the character forever for me with its finale), but he’s very good in this. He’s easily outshined by the immensely talented Rosie Perez (Tracey Wolf, the former director of the theatre program before Radnor’s character takes her job). Perez just shines so much in this show. She’s often the sarcastic comedic relief of a scene, but around episode 4, she’s given a lot to do and she does it beautifully. I started the show because of the premise and stuck around because of her. Auli’i Cravalho and Damon J. Gillespie ooze chemistry as Lillette (the daughter of a single mother) and Robbie Thorne (the football team’s quarterback who ended up in the musical). The two of them have the biggest subplots after those involving the adult characters and they carry their plots well. Marley Shelton and Casey Johnson do well as Gail and Gordy Mazzuchelli (Lou’s wife and son). The rest of the cast is equally strong and, frankly, there’s just too many of them to go into detail about without turning this review into an extended ramble about how good everyone is in the show. The point is: the cast is very very strong. So, as I said, the cast carries this show because the writing really lets it down. Everything about the show is predictable as hell. Much of it feels like a rip-off of Glee (down to the overzealous teacher taking over the mistreated arts program, the football star ending up in said arts program and falling in love with one of the stars, the football team being super not okay with that, pushback from the administration of the school, etc) and the rest of it is utterly predictable (romantic drama between students, infighting amongst the adults, a storyline involving a character from a very conservative and religous family being cast in the play as a gay character – and then teasing that the student might be gay). Nothing about the writing of this show feels original or unique at all. It’s all been taken from shows/movies/books that explored those ideas better. There are two elements of the writing that feel unique and both aren’t explored anywhere near their potential: one student, Michael Hallowell (played by Ellie Desautels), is introduced early on as a transgender student who is treated like any other student (and whose storyline, thankfully, doesn’t revolve solely around his being transgender; he’s allowed to exist as a person), but that character is hardly featured outside their introduction and frequently fades into the background during the first half of the season and only is featured more in the second half alongside another character (in a very beautiful arc, but it still would have been nice for Michael to have existed more on his own); later episodes explore what it’s like for the characters to live in their town: one that’s been hollowed out by the closure of the local steel mill. It’s a kind, genuine look at how towns suffer when their chief source of jobs closes, but so little time is spent on this that it ends up being nothing more than a subplot in an episode. Both of these elements are the only really original things this show has to offer and neither are utilized particularly frequently. It’s a shame because the book that this show is “inspired by” offers a far more interesting story than the one told in the show. Drama High, Michael Sokolove’s book about Lou Volpe and his work with the theatre department at Harry S Truman High School in testing new musicals before they’re licensed to other high schools. The real Lou Volpe is a gay man who’s worked hard at that school and created something genuinely unique, interesting, and impactful. The show decides to make Lou Mazzuchelli a straight dude who decides to bring a little life to his conservative Pennsylvanian town by staging Spring Awakening (something the real Lou Volpe did as part of Harry S Truman High School’s pilots of musicals). It seems that Rise is based primarily on the chapter of the book that talks about Volpe’s staging of Spring Awakening, only next to none of what’s in the book actually happens on screen in the show. I’m not sure why Katims and his crew decided not to just more closely adapt Drama High, as that’s a more interesting, special, and unique story than the one they’ve ultimately given us, but such is life, I suppose. The writing for the show isn’t all bad, especially in later episodes. But the first half of the season is rough and I can’t help but feel like it might have been better had they stuck closer to their source material. The first half of the season would have been stronger, but we’d probably have lost some of my favorite moments of the second half. It probably sounds like I hate Rise. I don’t. I like it quite a bit. It’s hard to talk about the elements of Rise that I did like without going into spoilers. Perhaps I’ll do weekly, or biweekly, reviews of individual episodes in the future. Nonetheless, I do like Rise. I like it in spite of its super questionable writing. I like it in spite of its ridiculous, shaky, “realistic” cinematography (shaky-cam does not automatically make things feel more real; it just makes it annoying to watch). I like it in spite of the fact that its source material is so much more interesting than the show is. I like it primarily because I love the actors and I love the characters they’re portraying. I like that it’s showing a high school that doesn’t have access to much of anything for their theatrical productions (I came from a high school that funded their arts a bit better, so seeing how little the school in Rise has to try and put on a show with is really interesting to me). I like the diversity in the students, both in terms of their ethnicity and in terms of their gender and sexual identities. I like that the show – mostly – allows those characters to be real people and not just their race/sex/gender. I love shows that lovingly show off theatre and musicals. There’s enough about Rise that I like that I’m willing to overlook the things that I don’t like. It no world is this a particularly well-written show. It’s melodramatic nonsense and isn’t as good as Katims’ previous shows. But it is enjoyable and for as unoriginal as its plotlines are, there isn’t another show on TV showing off theatre the way this show is. It’s got a lot of problems and its pilot is really rough, but if you give the show a few episodes before making a judgment call, you’ll probably end up liking it, too.
3.5 out of 5 wands
(The first half of the season is 3 out of 5 wands, the second half is 4 out of 5 wands)