It is physically impossible to watch NBC’s Rise without thinking of Friday Night Lights. Created by Jason Katims, the same showrunner behind that beloved drama about a Texas community fueled by football, Rise operates in a similar milieu — once again, the focus is on high-school life in a small, thoroughly American town — and moves to familiar rhythms.
For example, in the first episode, which debuts tonight after This Is Us, protagonist Lou Mazzuchelli (Josh Radnor) drives to work while images of the Pennsylvania steel town where he lives whiz by outside his car windows. It won’t be the first time that a scene like this makes its way into Rise. Every time one does, you may find yourself reflexively murmuring the phrase, “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.”
But as much as its sensibility and focus may dovetail with FNL, Rise is a different show, one that is sensitive, full-to-bursting with heart, and well-acted, but also one whose characters don’t immediately pop in the same way that the residents of Dillon, Texas, did.
The nucleus of Rise, based very loosely on Michael Sokolove’s book Drama High, is Lou, an English teacher with a wife and three kids, the oldest of whom, Gordy (Casey Johnson of Netflix’s GLOW), is a football player with a drinking problem. Despite having a lot on his personal plate, Lou decides in the first episode to express interest in taking over Stanton High School’s drama department. He immediately gets the job, mainly because the principal views the woman most likely to inherit the role as a “pain in the ass.” That woman is Tracy (Rosie Perez), and she is in the middle of mounting a production of Grease when Lou waltzes in and announces that, with exactly zero experience directing plays, he is about to take the job she’s been waiting for decades to assume, while she’ll be demoted to assistant director. Oh, and also they aren’t doing Grease anymore. They will be staging Spring Awakening, a challenging coming-of-age musical that deals with all the things that people in a conservative town are just dying for their kids to address onstage: child abuse, abortion, and homosexuality.
This all happens very quickly in the pilot, far too fast for the show to really explain what’s motivating Lou, aka “Mr. Mazzu,” to make these choices. The remaining nine episodes of the season track the ups and downs that ensue on the road to opening night, while also entering the homes and personal lives of the adults and teens involved in Stanton drama.
Lou is central to Rise, and one of the key reasons why the show is hard to embrace without reservation. He is stubborn, insistent that things should be done his way, and so prone to stepping on other people’s toes that his shoes must be at least a size 22. He is not a bad man — the show makes that clear — but he is a challenging character to root for, even though the show is also quite clear that it wants us to do exactly that.
Even before the show aired, Lou was earmarked as potentially problematic because the man who inspired him, Lou Volpe, the subject of Drama High, is gay, while on the show, he is not. (Volpe, who led the much-lauded theater program at Harry S. Truman High School in Levittown, Pennsylvania, eventually came out after spending much of his adult life in the closet, married to a woman, and raising a son with her.) Katims has said he “took [the book] as an inspiration, and then … really felt like I needed to make it my own story,” which is what Katims has done with his other adaptations of preexisting material, including Friday Night Lights and the series Parenthood. While the hunger to see more gay characters in major roles is very understandable, after watching the entire season, it becomes clear that the subject of repressed sexuality is addressed, just via other story lines. As for Lou, he’s a frustrating character for other reasons that have nothing to do with his orientation.
That being said, in the second half of the season, Katims and the other writers more openly acknowledge his flaws, suggesting that he has been deliberately written to be difficult, perhaps as a departure from the practically perfect Coach Eric Taylor of Friday Night Lights. On paper, though, Eric wasn’t perfect, either. What made him seem that way was Kyle Chandler, who leavened his occasional skids toward bullheadedness and insensitivity with a low-key charm. So far, Radnor hasn’t figured out how to infuse Lou with the same affability or layers to his personality. On more than one occasion, I wondered what Rise would be like if Tracy were playing the equivalent of the Lou role and Lou was the guy who had paid his dues and then was forced to play second fiddle.
Speaking of Perez, she’s wonderful as Lou’s practical, supportive, take-no-bullshit partner. When the moment calls for it, as it does during a school-board meeting in the second episode, Perez knows exactly how to underline Tracy’s outspoken spitfire side. But she has softer moments, too. Later in the season, while attempting to advise a student, she shares a long-held personal secret with such understated, wistful notes of regret that it’s futile to resist the onset of tears.
The young actors who play the teens are also great across the board. Auli’i Cravalho, the voice of Moana, is convincing and appealing as shy vocal powerhouse Lilette Suarez, who gets unexpectedly cast as one of the leads in Spring Awakening and must juggle that responsibility with a part-time job and rumors that her single mom (Shirley Rumierk) is hooking up with the high-school football coach (Joe Tippett). Yes, football is an important part of Rise, yet another reason it will remind you of Friday Night Lights. An even bigger one is Lou’s decision to cast Stanton High’s QB1, Robbie Thorne (Damon J. Gillespie), as one of the leads, then work out an arrangement that enables the football star to toggle back and forth between the field and the theater. Gillespie is believable and likable as a kid who, like Lilette, carries enormous weight on his shoulders, and also feels somewhat out of his depth as an actor.
One of the best things about Rise is that, as Glee did before it, it broadens the definition of what it means to be a theater kid. Unlike Glee, it takes the process of mounting a high-school production very seriously and completely avoids theatricality and wink-wink humor in its storytelling. Rise dials everything down — sometimes maybe a little too far down — and is deeply sincere. I can’t help but admire it for daring to diverge from the irony, archness, and camp that defines most high-school fare.
Rise also addresses social issues, including those related to class, religion, and, as previously noted, sexual orientation. In keeping with the themes of Spring Awakening, it focuses heavily on Simon (Ted Sutherland), a gay student who struggles even more ferociously with his identity after he’s cast as Hänschen, a young man who has a romance, and a kissing scene, with another boy. Simon’s Catholic and conservative parents, particularly his father, take unsurprising issue with his participation in the show, creating a conflict that stretches throughout the season. There is also a young trans actor, Michael (Ellie Desautels), who is fully accepted among his theater peers, but less so when he’s away from them. Both story lines are handled gracefully, albeit gently. I wanted to spend even more time getting to know Michael, who rises to greater prominence only in the latter portion of the season.
As a show about theater, there are, naturally, a lot of musical moments in Rise, and they invariably elevate the show and make it feel more personal, touching, and lovely. By the time the Stanton troupe reaches the moment when the curtain is about to rise, you’ll have your fingers crossed and double-crossed for these kids. If you ever did high-school theater yourself, you also may be transported back to the times you spent in the wings, waiting alongside your best friends for the cue to come and tell you to take that first step toward white-hot spotlights.
Despite its flaws, Rise does a commendable job of evoking that feeling and many of the other complications that accompany the transition from adolescence to adulthood. Which is exactly what you want a coming-of-age drama to do. Its first season may be shaky, especially at first. But I genuinely hope it gets a second act from NBC.