"Rise," premiering Tuesday on NBC, is a season-long backstage drama about a high school production of the musical "Spring Awakening." That it is inspired by a work of nonfiction – Michael Sokolove's "Drama High: The Incredible True Story of a Brilliant Teacher, a Struggling Town, and the Magic of Theater" – does not keep it from being cliched and corny, and that it is cliched and corny does not mean that it fails to do its job. Created by Jason Katims, who ran "Friday Night Lights" and created "Parenthood" (both also on NBC), and Jeffrey Seller, a producer of "Hamilton," it wants you to feel, by gad, and feel you will.
Like the network's hit weepy "This Is Us," “Rise” is a series in which people lead more or less ordinary lives – there are no murders to solve, no monsters to slay, no ballpoint tracheotomies to perform – in a more or less naturalistic setting while feeling many things.
Josh Radnor plays Lou Mazzuchelli – Mr. Mazzu for short – who has been teaching English for 17 years in the once-proud, now-decaying fictional rust belt town of Stanton, Pa. We meet him attempting to discuss "The Grapes of Wrath" with the world's most bored English class, though he doesn't seem to be putting in much effort either.
Feeling low, Lou jumps at a vacancy and asks to run the theater department. Despite not knowing his stage right from his stage left, he is given the job over longtime, super-devoted, knows-her-stuff assistant director Tracey Wolf (Rosie Perez), because the principal regards her as trouble. (There will be drama in the drama department, before there is unity.)
"I feel like this is my chance to get out from behind this desk and do something, make an impact," says Lou, forgetting that English teachers can also make an impact teaching “The Grapes of Wrath.” His first move is to cancel a planned production of "Grease" and instead mount the 2006 Tony-winning musical "Spring Awakening," whose subjects, we are told, include abortion, teen suicide, child abuse and homosexuality — still a hot topic in some quarters. Also, it is sexy as hell. (There will be drama in the city of Stanton.)
Lou goes about stepping on toes and putting out fires, most of which he started himself. We are, I think, meant to regard him as arrogant at times, and a little bit of a baby, but ultimately justified in his vision and ambition, and therefore heroic. He’s on a journey too!
The characters and situations are familiar. The less likely girl ("Moana" star Auli'i Cravalho, as Lillette) is cast as the lead over the class star (Amy Forsyth as Gwen); the tension between them is only amplified by the fact that Lilette's mom (Shirley Rumierk) has had an affair with Gwen's dad (Joe Tippett), who is also the football coach. When the football star (Damon J. Gillespie as Robbie) starts rapping at the pep rally, you know he's bound for high school musical glory and that this will not go down well with the team.
The casting is (more or less) colorblind; race is not an issue, though class is. Sexual identity is an issue for certain characters, but not for the community. A trans character, Michael (Ellie Desautels), is briefly harassed by a couple of dumb jocks essentially brought in for that purpose, but he is presented as one of the show's more together people. Simon (Ted Sutherland), whom we are clearly meant to recognize as gay, is in denial as to Who He Is. (But even his priest is cool with "Spring Awakening: "I appreciate its message of the perils of living in a repressed society.")
In spite of whatever controversial material “Spring Awakening” contains, by contemporary standards of teenage drama, and drama at large, “Rise” is on the mild side, and only superficially engaged with the realities of 2018.
There is a minor sexual harassment subplot and a passing reference to the town's struggle with unemployment and opioid addiction. But there are no drugs, not even soft ones, making Stanton High's theater department one of the country's more unusual. Lou's son, Gordy (Casey Johnson) has a drinking problem, which comes and goes as the writers deem necessary, but it feels weightless, barely troubling (though his family yells about it a lot). Lou's homeless student/lighting tech, Maashous (Rarmian Newton) is similarly seen in soft focus, though the actor is charming.
That said, “Rise” is rife with conflict – usually played with melodramatic (if often quiet) intensity. An alien life form basing its impression of human high school theater on the first season of "Rise" would be forgiven for thinking that it was group therapy for lost souls rather than something a well-adjusted, or even a maladjusted, kid might do for fun.
In spite of its faults, I imagine some people will love the stuffing out of this. It flatters the teenage psychic reality, in which everything transpires at fever pitch, and even boredom has an intensity to it. (There is much talk, most of it from Mr. Mazzu, about “being seen,” which kids crave.) It is predictable, sometimes down to individual lines; the title itself gives the arc away.
But predictability is part of what makes musical theater tick; it delivers the thrill the crowd comes for, dramatic tension leading to inspirational release. Just as night follows day, the major-key chorus follows the minor-key verse, and the drop follows the break. When opening night arrived, and a talented cast gave their all, there was a lump in my throat, right on cue.
I’ll admit it, I’m not proud.