What’s that you hear? Is it an echoing, atmospheric guitar, strumming along in the background as a middle-aged white dude drives a car through an economically depressed town? Is that … shaky cam? Was that a shot of a sign saying that the ironworks are now closed, then an image of a hardhat in a box with “RIP” spray-painted on it? Yes, yes, and yes — which means we must be watching a new show by Jason Katims. It’s Rise, aka Friday Night Glee, aka How I Met Your Inspiring Drama Teacher, aka Dead Musicals Society.
You know what’ll raise the spirits of this depressed town that we only see in grayscale? Could it be this sad high school, whose performance of Grease is just never going to be enough to inspire kids to believe in themselves? If an inexperienced but enthusiastic English teacher named Lou Mazzuchelli takes over the theater department from the lovely, talented woman who’s been there for years and puts on a production of Spring Awakening, of course!
Welcome to NBC’s Rise, a new series that suffers from some very significant pilot-itis. This first episode somehow needs to cram in Mr. Mazzu’s introduction, his family life, the setting, school, history of its theater department, life stories of several main students, an affair between the football coach and a student’s mom, and a sizzle reel for Spring Awakening, all in about 43 minutes. As it turns out, that’s not possible, so a lot of stuff gets short shrift and big character beats are reduced to a few hand-wavy lines. (Ahem, Gordy’s alcoholism and Gwen’s frustration with her casting.)
But the biggest pilot sacrifice is the lack of any sensible timeline for how a high-school musical would actually get produced. The general order of events in the Rise pilot is roughly as follows: A production of Grease has already had auditions, been cast, and is now in the middle of rehearsals — yet somehow Mr. Mazzu is able to show up in the principal’s office, request to take over the entire department, and then throw out everything because he feels like doing Spring Awakening. Then he has auditions and casts the show (“musicals are typically referred to as shows, not plays”), which means he must run around the school, press-ganging students into joining. Only after he’s done that (and essentially blackmailed Robbie, the school’s football star, into trying out) does Principal Ward finally notice that Spring Awakening has a lot of controversial stuff in it — and also, they have no money left for the show, so they’ll have to do Pirates of Penzance instead.
After that, there is still enough time to cast and rehearse so that one student, Simon, is dancing in full costume and rolling his eyes at Miss Wolfe (who briefly regains her status as director of the musical) before everyone rises up against the administration and burns the Pirates stuff to the ground. How much time passes during this pilot? A month? Two weeks? Two months? A year? Are there actually 100 hours per day in depressed Pennsylvanian working-class towns? Does Josh Radnor have some kind of magical pedagogical strategy to teach musical numbers in a matter of minutes, but somehow cannot communicate the name of the protagonist in The Grapes of Wrath?
Of course, the biggest victim of the show’s pilot syndrome has everything to do with its main character. Josh Radnor’s Lou Mazzuchelli is already an adaptation of the real man who inspired the story: Lou Volpe, the remarkable former drama teacher of Pennsylvania’s Harry S. Truman High, is a closeted gay man, and Katims has already gotten heat for straight-washing him so that he could “make it [his] own story.” But the problem is compounded beyond that: Although rendered as a straight man, Mr. Mazzu still didn’t have to be this straight man. He didn’t have to be the guy who railroads his wife’s life so he can fail upwards at his quixotic dream. He did not have to be the guy who really sucks as an English teacher, then still takes some other job from a woman who deserved it. He didn’t have to be the guy who makes massive decisions without telling his family first. He didn’t have to be the guy wearing an “O Captain, My Captain” corduroy blazer, who will now be congratulated for inspiring everyone.
What I’m saying is: justice for Miss Wolfe!
But I must admit: Although this pilot confused me and I have serious problems with the Radnor-related stuff, I also have several weaknesses that make me very interested in this show. My logical brain can say, “How did Mr. Mazzu turn Robbie into an amazing actor by telling him to stop acting?” but my lizard brain will still clap gleefully while all these adorable high-school kids jump up and down singing the “blah blah” bits from “Totally Fucked.” I rolled my eyes so hard that they spun the Earth backwards after Mr. Mazzu made Simon, a closeted gay teen, play Hanschen because he just feels like it’s right, but I still cheered when Simon told his parents he’s going to be in the musical no matter what they say. I will absolutely root for Lilette Suarez to nail “Mama Who Bore Me,” even as I note that Mr. Mazzu should not feel so smug about casting a trans student in the show.
The question for Rise going forward is whether it can figure out how to complicate Mr. Mazzu’s role as inspirational theater savior, and how much his shtick undermines the fun of watching these teens fall in love with theater. I love watching people love musicals! I am very open to watching people learn how to sing and dance! I like Robbie and his mom! I want good things for Maashous, the kid who was living in the lighting booth and has the improbable name Maashous! I want their production to be everything Mr. Mazzu says it could be!
But at this point, I would prefer that Mr. Mazzu had very little to do with any of it. Change my mind, Rise. Please. If it helps, I’ll stand outside by the parking lot bonfire and grasp hands with my fellow Rise-watchers and sing “I Believe.”
• At various points in this pilot, characters refer to Radnor’s character as “Mr. Mizzou,” “Mr. Mazzu,” “Mr. Mazzarelli,” and “Lou.” My preferred interpretation is that these characters are fighting against the dominant Mr. Mazzu-worship narrative and doing their very best to neg him from within the fiction by purposely messing up his name.
• Miss Wolfe can stay exactly as she is, but most of the other adults need some significant additional nuance. Budget-minded Principal Ward is on the list, but primary candidate after Mr. Mazzu is Coach “He Don’t Have Time to Act in Some Play” Strickland. You stay away from my footballers, English teacher!
• If I were trying to clean up this pilot, I’d probably cut Lilette’s mother’s affair with Coach Strickland. Maybe that plot will have more meaning later in the season, but surely “less privileged, inexperienced student gets cast in lead role and ousts the coach’s daughter” would’ve been enough tension for now, right?