We’ve All Got Our Junk
A scene from season one, episode five of Rise.
First they showed us a dude taking a deserving drama teacher’s job, and I said nothing. (This is not true, I said quite a bit.) Then they showed us drama kids casting and rehearsing a high school musical, and I said nothing. (Once again, a lie.) But now they’re showing us the pit orchestra, and I will not be silent. (Okay, this one’s true!)
There’s a bunch that happens in this week’s Rise and I’m going to get to it all in turn, but I cannot even touch any of it before I take a few moments to say: This is not how pit orchestras work!!! Mr. Mazzu brings everyone to rehearsal so they can run through a few numbers with the orchestra and the chorus together, which would never happen when the orchestra still sucks this badly. Then, OBVIOUSLY, it’s quite bad and everyone notices and Mr. Mazzu is concerned. The orchestra is also bad in a very unrealistic way: You can hear that these are musicians who actually know how to play these instruments (they’re almost all in tune and well-formed notes), but who are deliberately sucking. But I’m mostly okay with that part of it, because not having to hear an actual terrible orchestra is a small mercy for Rise’s already beleaguered audience.
So once again, Mr. Mazzu completely railroads over the expertise and effort of a long-time staffer who has dedicated a lot of time to this project. First, Maashous introduces him to an amazing guitarist — a fantastic secret rock and roll prodigy who doesn’t want to perform in public because he wears a turban. (He may be Sikh, although Rise never takes the time to specify.) It’s, ahem, a bit of a stretch to believe that Stanton High magically conceals every variety of talented genius student necessary to plug the leaks in Mr. Mazzu’s Spring Awakening show. It’s even more of a stretch that each of those students just happens to be someone from a different marginalized population so Mr. Mazzu can feel super smug about including them in his production. If that’s not enough to tip the plausibility scales, both times this happens (the first is with Michael in the pilot), Mr. Mazzu finds these kids because his magical light-board-running unofficial foster kid taps him on the shoulder and says, “Hey, you should check this out!”
So the discovery of a magical guitarist is one problem with the pit this week. Another? Mr. Mazzu charges into pit rehearsal, listens to what genial orchestra director Mr. Baer has been working on, and then immediately grabs the baton and starts conducting the group himself?! He has no music experience that we know of, so how does he even think he can conduct? (It is very different than just waving the stick around.) And then he has the temerity to just … make them play it faster, and say, “Oh hey, it’s better now! Okay, bye!”
I’m gonna be honest, I had a bit of a rage blackout.
This is where I’m going to tell you that this is my last Rise recap, unless the show magically improves at some later point. There are a lot of other notable plot things that happen in this episode — Robbie and Lilette are very cute together on top of a roof, Coach and his wife are getting a divorce, Simon has a confrontation with his parents about going back to Stanton, and Mr. Mazzu finally has a straight conversation with Gordy about alcoholism — but I want to take this opportunity to pull apart the big issues with this show as it stands, and why some of its (maybe) forgivable flaws are real problems for me.
Rise is a show that wants to make big swinging gestures at universal issues. It wants to have big ideas about abstract things, about art and youth and how teachers can inspire people, and how to have hope, and how to survive when you feel like you’re all alone. It wants to be a show about finding your troupe and the power of music and friendship, and it especially wants to find parallels between Spring Awakening as its central text and the lives of its characters. It wants to be a show about adults and teenagers and the gulfs between them, and about the interplay between sexual stirrings, cultural repression, and adult expectations. That’s the idea of the modern musical version of Spring Awakening, too; you can see precise parallels between teens and adults in 19th-century Germany and in modern America.
I’ve complained a lot about Mr. Mazzu in these recaps, and there’s absolutely no question that his character is the central problem with Rise. In this episode alone, he takes over another teacher’s job, pretends to do it better, and then doesn’t even apologize when Mr. Baer confronts him about it and threatens to quit. (Oh sure, he says he’ll never do it again, and he calls Mr. Baer their “north star” and he begs Mr. Baer to stay, but he never actually apologizes.) If the Mr. Mazzu character were significantly reworked, I could overlook the other stuff going awry with Rise. If our entry into this world were Miss Wolfe, or even Lilette, our sympathies would immediately shift. We’d have a chance to look into those big sweeping issues — about marginalization, repression, and adult expectations — from the inside, rather than from the outside view of, “Oh look, I rescued a perfectly happy guitarist from obscurity so he could save my production!” As it turns out, if a show wants to be about teenagers feeling alone and out of place in the world, the teens also need a stronger central presence.
But that’s not how Rise works. Mr. Mazzu is our central storyteller, and there’s just no escaping that element of the show. And in part because of that, other features of Rise’s big sweeping thematics start to fall apart. I’ve complained about plausibility and realism in this show more than once. And I understand the need for fiction to jettison realism in service of better storytelling; there is a reason that stories about high school rarely include perfect verisimilitude, because if they did we’d all die of boredom while we watched them take standardized tests and stare at their phones. But when I say the show is “unrealistic,” what I’m saying is that it’s created a system of narrative priorities, and it has decided that some things are more important in this story than others. In Game of Thrones, that means that ice dragon fight scenes are more important than travel times. In Rise, that means that staring at Mr. Mazzu’s furrowed brow is more important than the specific beats of how putting on a high school musical would actually work. Rise keeps trying to argue that high school theater can be crucial and life-changing, but also that the details of it are unimportant.
Does that have to sink a show? Not necessarily! Friday Night Lights is a show ostensibly about the vital centrality of high school football that has only a passing interest in the details of football. But in the case of Rise, the disdain for plausibility, together with Mr. Mazzu being insufferable and the show’s pervasive disregard for things like sensible timelines, or props that actually make sense, together add up to a larger picture of a show that’s aiming for interesting big-picture stuff and disintegrates into sloppiness when it comes to the details. It is a shame, because I’d really love for this premise to work out! But the show keeps putting me in the position of Miss Wolfe. I know it should be better. I know it could be great! And then I keep getting pushed aside by other stories whose problems are somehow inherently more important than the ones I care about, and whose concerns are somehow a higher priority.
And so, I will sign off with the immortal words of one of my favorite characters on a far superior show about how important it is to care about the theater: Sorry! Sorry for caring!
• Chief among my complaints of sloppiness this week: In episode four, Mr. Kranepool called Miss Wolfe “luminous,” and she asked, “What did you call me?” and he replied with a definition of the word. To which she answered, of course, “I know what the word means.” This is already hacky dialogue, but then the exact same exchange happens between them in this episode, about the exact same word. They’re referencing the previous conversation! It’s so bonkers that she’d ask him about that word again, and then he’d define luminous AGAIN.
• Despite all my gripes, I continue to think one of the strongest parts of the show is Simon and his family, particularly his mother as played by Stephanie J. Block. When Simon declares that he wants to go back to Stanton, his mother pressures his father about why Spring Awakening is such a trigger for him. “Why are you so afraid of this play?” she asks him. It’s a good scene!
• Also good: Mr. Mazzu finally sitting down and talking to his son about alcoholism and how it runs in their family. Truly baffling: how Mr. Mazzu never had this conversation until now.