The pilot of Rise was really, really rocky. It introduced us to a protagonist who we’re supposed to root for, but who is insufferable. It stuffed so much plot into 43 minutes that I’m surprised it didn’t burst at the seams of each commercial break. It short-changed many of the characters it was trying to endear to us. It didn’t even do a great job introducing Spring Awakening. And the strongest bits — the teens, Miss Wolfe, the core premise that sincerity and effort and theater are good — got muffled or overwritten or undermined. I was really hoping episode two would be better!
It’s not, or at least not much.
The problems of the pilot are mostly still here, with a few of issues improved because the story has more room to grow. Gordy’s drinking problem gets much more time, so that plot gels into something with more of a shape: His drinking is bad enough that he’s sneaking out at night, he’s hiding alcohol in his locker, and he feels like Lou doesn’t understand him because he’s a misfit in his artistic family. Gordy likes football! The football coach likes him! Maybe football will … fix him? Coach Sam is gonna give it a go, and Lou is sad that he can’t connect with his own son, but he’s hopeful that something else might help. It feels like a separate story that’s been sewn onto this theater-will-save-us show, and its strength — Lou admitting how ill-equipped he is and how little he understands his son, i.e. Lou ceding ground — is exactly where the rest of the show is weak.
Still, I’m not sure that the Gordy story belongs here. There’s so much excess, and some of it needs to be jettisoned! But if it must be here, then I do appreciate that it’s a story about Lou being humbled amid legitimately tricky family dynamics. Feeling alienated from your own kid, conflicting visions of masculinity, the parental balance between trust and safety — this is all important, hard stuff. And Casey Johnson also does a nice turn as Gordy, all curling lip and downcast eyelines.
Everywhere else, though, things are still messy. The peak (or nadir) is the relationship between Mr. Mazzu and Miss Wolfe, which is so jumbled that it infects the rest of the episode. We’re still supposed to believe that Mr. Mazzuchelli is the right guy to lead this school’s drama program, even as he wilts when Principal Ward tells him that the musical’s budget is now zero. We’re supposed to believe in Mr. Mazzu even after he gives a Chicken Soup for the Theater-Loving Soul speech in front of the school district, rather than (reasonably) asking for money. We’re still supposed to believe in him after he scolds Miss Wolfe for standing up and railing against the football team’s new jumbotron. After he chastises her, no less, and threatens her about how she has to be careful not to be “a liability”!
That scene between the two of them, with Lou telling Miss Wolfe that she needs to support him, was so obviously a mistake on his part that I wondered if maybe I was misreading things. Surely Rise is on Miss Wolfe’s side, right? In the very next scene, when Miss Wolfe tries to direct Resentful Gwen and purposely ignores her mild rebellion, Lou oversteps Miss Wolfe’s authority. He’s awful, both undermining Miss Wolfe in front of the students and then calling out Gwen’s behavior in a way that immediately blows up in his face. There’s no way we’re supposed to think this is good leadership, I thought. They’re obviously trying to bring Mr. Mazzu down a few pegs!
But no. Rather than Lou Mazzuchelli crawling on his hands and knees to Miss Wolfe’s office and pleading for her forgiveness, Miss Wolfe has to prove her worth to him! She brings him a check from the school district, telling him that if she can bring in some cash then she’s definitely an asset. “You’re gonna need me, Mr. Mazzu,” she says. Of course he needs her! He doesn’t know stage left from stage right, and he doesn’t even think that’s a problem! How is this show on his side?!
Not only does Miss Wolfe have to come crawling back to Mr. Mazzu with cash in hand to prove her value, it also turns out that Mr. Mazzu is the one with the right approach for dealing with Gwen! In the end, his “I have no idea what I’m doing, but try singing with pain” message breaks through, and she brokenly sobs her way through “The Song of Purple Summer.” He did it! He broke a student’s spirit and now she can sing well! Great work, Mr. Mazzu.
On the bright side, while all of this is happening, the teen drama portion of Rise is hitting good beats. Lilette helps Robbie learn his lines (which was always going to be a problem, because: football), and they vibe during rehearsal. But then Lilette sees him kiss another girl and she runs away, crushed. Simon, who for sure is not gay, asks Annabelle/Barb out on a date (because: not gay). But then his parents announce that they’re transferring him to another school, where he presumably won’t be kissing boys in drama class. Things are not great at home for Gwen, and I have a feeling they won’t improve after her dad takes on Mr. Mazzu’s son as a special responsibility.
I just can’t get over the sense that Rise could click, if only everything about Radnor’s Lou Mazzuchelli were different. The actors who play all the students are great, and even as I rolled my eyes at Gwen’s obvious sudden discovery of how to perform Ilsa, I still loved her “Song of Purple Summer.” C’mon Rise! I want you to pull it together so badly! Please don’t make me pull out the Tyra GIF.
• After the very confusing timeline in the pilot, and the students’ magical ability to learn lines and choreography almost instantly, it was nice to see them all fumbling around through a run of “Totally Fucked.” Except the production can’t decide whether to play it as “Totally Effed,” or “Totally —–.” I’ve never seen a high-school production of Spring Awakening, so maybe the mixture of F-word workarounds is a standard procedure?
• Mr. Mazzuchelli’s name is still in flux, and I’m still very here for it. Mr. Mizzu, Mr. Maz — it’s all over the board. What does it say when your co-workers of almost two decades can’t even land on a solid nickname?
• I loved Miss Wolfe’s school district rant against the football team’s new jumbotron, but I also spent most of it laughing about Jason Katims writing another TV show where the enemy is a jumbotron.