I hate musicals, I really do. I can't deal with watching a scene unfold on stage and then all of a sudden someone bursts into song and starts dancing about the stage with a stupid smile on their face that makes them look like a Wal-Mart greeter. People just don't do that in life. So why would I have any interest in a show like Rise? Two words for this TV geek, Jason Katims. The man behind Parenthood, Roswell, and (the most underrated show ever) Friday Night Lights has teamed up with the producing pair of Jeffrey Seller and Flody Suarez who did the colossal musical hit, Hamilton. I went in wide-eyed and excited like its Christmas morning because I trust Katims that much. But first, let's get you what the show is about.
Inspired by Michael Sokolove's non-fiction book Drama High which came out in 2013, the Pilot is still set in the state of Pennsylvania but at the fictitious named Stanton High School. Upon doing research there seems to be some controversy because Katims has changed key elements about the lead character from the real-life teacher Lou Volpe the book is based on. I'm not here to make any kind of a stance on the right or wrong of his creative choices, that's up for one to investigate if one chooses. I'm going to talk about what I watched on the screen that the creative team put out as their finished product.
We are introduced to Lou Mazzuchelli (Josh Radnor), an English teacher at Stanton who realizes that none of his students care about any of the literature he is trying to teach them about. He gets the idea that he wants to be involved in the next theatre production at the school but his plan goes better than expected when the principal has him take over the current production and replace the instructor Tracy Wolfe (Rosie Perez) as its new director. It comes as no surprise that Tracy is not happy about this as she has already been working with the students on the play Grease and with this news she walks away from the play entirely, leaving Lou to come up with a whole new plan on his own.
Lou is also a husband and father of three children and when he goes home he has to convince his wife Gail (Marley Shelton) that this is what he really wants to do next. He tells her that he will still keep up his responsibilities with their kids but Gail refers to their son Gordy (Casey Johnson) who seems to have substance abuse problems that can't be ignored. Lou tells her he'll make it work because this is really important to him as he tells her, "I need something."
So with her approval, Lou decides to put on a production of the play "Spring Awakening" but when he decides to have auditions he has only one male show up so he has to figure out how to get more students involved or it's going to be difficult to have a show! Like a genie granting him a wish a situation falls into his lap where the top football player Robbie Thorne (Damon J. Gillespie) is failing his class so the agreement made is he must audition for the play and generate student interest, or he can't play in the Homecoming game. Turns out after he auditions, not only does Robbie have interest in doing the play but he has great chemistry with the productions lead female Lilette Suarez (Auli'i Cravalho). So now Lou has his play, his cast, and Tracy Wolfe decides to come back and assist him with the production. But things don't stay smooth sailing for long.
It's so easy to label Rise as Glee meets Friday Night Lights but while it does have the same production look of FNL with handheld cameras and slow guitar strumming in the background, it doesn't have the MTV style music numbers that Glee had. There's no pre-recorded music playing over the students singing` like they have a full band backing them up in the room. What makes Rise work is Katims brings his signature skill of making the characters everyday people that we can relate to with familiar problems. This is a small town where many of its inhabitants are struggling to get by not only financially because the local steel mill has closed but with each other as well. Many of the students are focused on just what they can do for either their parents or to make a better life for themselves moving somewhere else. Watching people struggle not only makes you care about them but when the production of "Spring Awakening" gets jeopardized you want to root for this group to succeed because their hearts are in this.
There are several social issues that are addressed on the show which is very important since the arts are known for welcoming in everyone and not judging people based on sexual orientation, race, religion, or gender. One student named Simon (Ted Sutherland) has very strict Catholic parents but is conflicted because he has to play a gay character in the play and he's afraid how his parents will react. Another student named Michael (Ellie Desautels) is transgender and joins the play because Lou needs male actors but while his castmates accept him, I'm betting it's not going to go that smoothly for the whole season.
The bad part is with having so much heart it is easy to fall into the traps of sentimentality and trying to get people to reach for those tissues. There are some moments when these kids talk to their parents and it just feels like they are dwarfing them with maturity and righteousness. An example is when one character is told by his parents he can't do the show because they don't approve of the material he refuses to listen to them and just says "I'm sorry." You are in high school and your parents put a roof over your head, I don't know if you can tell them 'no.' This show is all about standing up and believing in yourself but I don't think that just acting like your parents aren't still authority figures is entirely the proper message. Many of the kids in the play have amazing singing voices and the likeliness of EVERYONE being this talented is a teacher's dream but who wants to watch a show about a high school theater company who sound like stray cats meowing in the night? Me neither!
As someone who was actually in a theater company, I know of how tight a group can get from putting on a production together and even in just one episode I can see that's what Rise is all about. The play combined with all the subplots going on outside of the school looks like another well-balanced project from Katims that is bound to show success and heartbreak from the characters. I'm not certain how I'm going to deal with all the musical numbers-maybe fast forward. But even though it looks like Friday Night Lights because it's set in a small town high school since when is a story about wanting to make your dreams a reality a bad choice? What did you think of Rise on NBC? Did it have the right amount of heart or too much? Does it seem too much like something you've already seen?