The kids are more than alright in this new musical series.
The quick and dirty explanation of NBC’s newest drama is “Glee, but grittier.” Rise, a spiritual successor to showrunner Jason Katims’s Friday Night Lights (and loosely based on Michael Sokolove’s nonfiction book Drama High), takes us to a down-on-its-luck Pennsylvania town with a shuttered steel mill and little else to recommend it. The high school, at least, has pinned its hopes on the football team, investing as much as (or perhaps more than) it can afford in equipment, pep rallies, and AstroTurf at the expense of the arts. Lou Mazzuchelli, played by Josh Radnor, wants to change that.
Despite being an English teacher of questionable talents — after three days of talking about The Grapes of Wrath with his students, he’s apparently only just getting to the question of who its protagonist is — Lou is determined to reinvent Stanton High School’s theater program. Principal Ward is, at first, happy to indulge his midlife crisis: “Even-keeled Lou Mazzu” looks like a safe bet, and he’s naive enough to take the job for half of what his more experienced rival for the position, Tracy Wolfe (Rosie Perez), was getting. Where Tracy had been “a pain in the ass,” Lou seems set to serve Ward’s agenda and budgetary needs.
What Ward doesn’t realize is that Lou is determined to shake things up. He eschews the likes of Grease and Gilbert and Sullivan in favor of Spring Awakening — something that was, incidentally, made possible thanks to the efforts of Lou Volpe (the real-life subject of Sokolove’s Drama High) and his students, who convinced the rights-holders that high schools should be allowed to use it. But a rock musical featuring teen pregnancy, suicide, abortion, and gay romance is decidedly not the Stanton way. “Why be nervous?” asks one student wryly when he overhears Lou’s planned pitch. “What says ‘smash hit’ better than ‘repressed teenagers in 19th-century Germany’?”
Like Glee and High School Musical before it, Rise ratchets up the tension further by having Lou poach a star athlete for the show (here, Damon J. Gillespie’s Robbie, who catches Mazzu’s eye at a football rally with some helpfully expository rapping about his family dynamic). Coach Strickland is quick to inform Lou of why this is unacceptable: “No matter what happens with your play — you can flop, you can suck, you can fail — you still get paid. Because you’re an English teacher. Now, I get paid to win games.” I am 98 percent sure this is not how being a high school football coach works!
Nonetheless, there really is something at stake here, at least for star quarterback Robbie, because a football scholarship is the only way for him to pay his way through college. Indulging his curiosity about drama — and his co-star, Lilette, played by Moana’s Auli’i Cravalho — could mean losing out on his future, as his dad is quick to remind him.
It’s true that theater can be life-changing too, and the show clearly wants us to see Lou as an inspiration from the outset, but it hasn’t made much of a case for that yet. It’s hard not to sympathize with Tracy, whose 10-plus years of work on the theater program he trashes pretty unapologetically, and his wife, who’s forced to cancel a work engagement when he fails to pick up their kids as promised. His directing also leaves something to be desired, which makes it a little jarring when the kids respond as quickly and powerfully as they do.
Early on, Robbie is struggling to work out how to play a scene in which his character, Melchior, apologizes for saying, “You bitch, I’ll beat the hell out of you” and throwing his girlfriend to the ground. “Just be yourself,” Lou tells him. Apparently, that works! Robbie is suddenly a model Melchior, all smoldering intensity, and Lilette responds in kind.
For this first episode, at least, Lou is a little thinly and confusingly sketched. But if the adults don’t quite work yet, the teens alone make Rise worth a watch. Cravalho in particular is incredibly expressive. She’s convincingly enraged and wounded by turns during Lilette’s confrontation with her mother after she discovers that the latter’s dalliance with the married Coach Strickland is more than a schoolyard rumor — and, as anyone who’s seen Moana can attest, she can really, really sing.
Ted Sutherland is also excellent as Lilette’s best friend, Simon, a seemingly closeted teen who finds himself in a fraught situation when Lou demotes him from Grease’s uber-heterosexual Danny Zuko to Hänschen, whose storyline in Spring Awakening revolves around his love for another boy. Sutherland is fiery and frantic with Lou as he insists on another part, then heartbreakingly earnest when entreating his devout Catholic parents to accept the role he’s been given. And Ellie Desautels as Michael does a lot with relatively little in the way of screen time — the trans boy bracing for impact before he announces his new name in front of everyone is utterly believable. If the show doesn’t handle Michael’s introduction perfectly in leading with his birth name, there’s still something gratifying about watching Lou strike out that name on the cast list once he makes his identity clear — no further questions asked. Eagle-eyed viewers will also catch sight of Stranger Things’ Barb, aka Shannon Purser, among the ensemble.
“I love you all,” Lou tells the students toward the end of the episode (another nice nod to the man who inspired him: Volpe often ended speeches to his teenage troupe thus). Thanks to the stellar young cast, I found myself loving them, too — at least enough to follow up next week to see where the journey takes them.