There is one truly fantastic scene in this week’s episode of Rise. Unfortunately, it has little to do with any of the big stories and it involves none of the main characters. Still, there’s a moment deep into the episode when the drama kids crash a football party at Robbie’s house and start singing together. Inevitably, because they are drama kids at a party where there’s definitely free soda and popcorn (and probably also alcohol), they belt out Fun’s “Carry On” at the tops of their voices, their joyful faces lifted up in unthinking celebration of youth and power and friendship.
Around them, the football players look on with expressions that range from exasperation to disgust. Robbie’s dad swings in to urge Robbie to “save” the party, but for my money, there’s no way it could get any better. Drama kids being their most extra, drama selves while surrounded by football players who don’t hate them, but who just cannot with them? This is the fictional high-school showdown I want! This is hilarious and tender! This is Real America.
But that scene lasts maybe 45 seconds, so it’s time to look at what else is happening in Rise’s fourth episode.
Huh, I guess we’re going with a story about Miss Wolfe needing a love life, because a woman who has no romantic partner and dedicates herself to her job is suspicious and scary and overly invested. O-o-okaaaay? There are a few decent elements of this story, I suppose. For one, Miss Wolfe’s would-be paramour Andy Kranepool is very cute, and although he seems utterly incapable of speaking to her like a normal human and doesn’t feel prepped to offer romantic interest so much as I think you’re scary and I find that compelling, he does seem generally sweet. Other highlights of this story include: Andy telling Miss Wolfe that she’s awesome, the idea of Miss Wolfe dating a hot teacher who seems younger than her, and Miss Wolfe saying, “Let’s just go in and eat those stupid apps.”
Aside from those upsides, the issue with this story is Mr. Mazzu. (Really, when isn’t that the case?) Rise does seem angled to communicate the idea that Mr. Mazzu should not have interfered in Tracey’s romantic life, and that he has “messed up.” Which is fine. Except there’s a lingering sense that Rise also wants us to know that actually, what Mr. Mazzu did wasn’t that bad. Sure, he shouldn’t have tried to push Miss Wolfe and Mr. Kranepool together, but … they seem cool! It’s not great that Mr. Mazzu thinks Miss Wolfe has no life, but … that’s also sorta true, amirite?
This is the perpetual weakest point for Rise. Even as it actively tries to recontextualize Mr. Mazzu’s relative privilege and power in this school — even as it has moments where it gives Miss Wolfe a chance to literally yell about how unfair it is that she got passed over for this job — the show cannot help but circle back to painting Mr. Mazzu as sympathetic. And I say “tries” because that’s what it does. It is a very visible effort, and that effort never results in the intended effect.
Over and over, Rise tells us that Mr. Mazzu is awesome. We get several shots of Gail Mazzuchelli staring adoringly at her husband. In episode four, we get Gail rolling her eyes at him, but ultimately forgiving him after he lets Gordy off the hook. We get lots of moments where Miss Wolfe talks about him. (This is another problem with Tracey’s possible love plot: the whole damn thing is actually about Lou!) But so far, we really haven’t seen Mr. Mazzu do good things. He takes in Maashous, but his wife does all the work. He casts Michael, but Michael is the one who has to deal with dressing in the boy’s locker room and defending himself at a football party. He immediately abdicates responsibility for his son to a football coach. Miss Wolfe seems to be doing all the work on the production. What does this man actually do?
I’ve appreciated the Gordy alcoholism storyline, largely because I enjoy the way Casey Johnson juts his chin out at an angle to signify sullenness, and because it’s the show’s best suggestion that Mr. Mazzuchelli is not perfect. And there are a few brighter spots here. Mr. Mazzu drooling over another school’s lighting board and then directly asking for money feels about right. I am on board for Gordy’s as-yet-unspoken crush on Gwen. And sure enough, there he was glugging vodka into his soda because he’s (everyone say it together because Rise has also said it 40 times) an alcoholic. But after this episode, the Mazzuchelli family story should find somewhere else to go. Right now, we keep circling back through the same “worried parents and glowering teen” beats.
This is also the first episode of Rise to go Full Football, making good on some simmering, very predictable story arcs. Robbie seems distracted by Spring Awakening (or rather, by Lilette), so he messes up the football game and potentially spoils the college chances for his teammate, who’s being scouted by a recruiter. Other than, Wow, Jason Katims really remembers all those Friday Night Lights sequences, huh?, the most important takeaway here is that it clarifies the opposing forces in Robbie’s life. It’s less about football versus drama, and more about Lilette versus Robbie’s dad. This is another thematic through-line that FNL mined pretty effectively, and there’s no question that parental pressure is a strong hook for story arcs. I do also want Robbie to just really love being in a musical, though. Let the kid sing “Carry On” at the football party if he wants to!
Finally, I was quite surprised to see Simon still ironing his uniform for St. Francis, as I thought Stephanie Block had pulled into Mr. Mazzu’s driveway and fixed all that at the end of episode three. Apparently not? But maybe we’re heading in that direction, because Simon drunkenly pukes his guts out in the bathroom and his mother is understandably worried. I hope so! This is a show about a bunch of high school kids who put on a musical. Just let the kids be in the musical!
• When Rise shifts over into Football Land it really goes deep into FNL territory, doesn’t it? I could be mistaken, but I think the announcer is the same guy who did commentary for Dillon Panthers games? Either that guy has a very specific niche career or there is a real genre for high-school-football announcer rhythms.
• Robbie’s dad spent 150 bucks on a “soda and popcorn machine.” I have many questions. Does it make soda and popcorn? Are there actually two machines and they cost $150 combined? Was it a rental, or will he have to store that somewhere now? Does the soda machine come with the syrups? Does it have to get hooked up to a CO2 tank? The thing on his countertop looked pretty small — is it a refrigerated unit, or is he passing out room-temperature soda? Also, I can’t tell if $150 seems like way too much or too little.
• How are you going to tell us all about an elementary-school production of Cats and show us none of it?!