Watching Rise feels like watching its promising high school characters take to the stage and try with all their might to bare their souls and inspire the masses. It’s unabashedly earnest, sporadically moving, and, when it falters, incredibly frustrating.
As helmed by Friday Night Lights and Parenthood creator Jason Katims, Rise puts its bleeding heart in the hands of a high school drama department in rural Pennsylvania, where the football team and the ghost of steel mills past reign supreme.
But when bored English teacher Lou Mazzuchelli (Josh Radnor) decides he wants to shake things up, he convinces the principal to let him take over the school musical from its longtime director (Rosie Perez, bringing grounded fury to an understandably pissed-off character) and convince the teens and their parents alike of the provocative artistic merits of Spring Awakening.
And as is inevitable, the kids go through their own awakenings, from a football star (Damon J. Gillespie) falling for a shy waitress (Auli’i Cravalho, a.k.a. Moana) to a closeted religious teen (Ted Sutherland) grappling with playing a gay role to a trans teen (Ellie Desautels) learning how to navigate the world as Michael instead of Margaret.
The series is based on Drama High, Michael Sokolove’s 2013 nonfiction account of how real-life English teacher Lou Volpe turned a school theater program in Levittown, Pennsylvania, upside down. In Katims’s hands, Rise unsurprisingly aims for the exact middle of the Friday Night Lights meets Parenthood Venn diagram. (And yes: Glee is never too far from mind, despite the two shows’ wildly different tones and Rise letting its singing sound like singing and not impassioned robot chipmunks.)
When Rise finds its stride and lets its kids hit their high notes, it can be breathtaking. But the show has one huge anchor of a problem that keeps it from truly taking off.
Rise’s supposedly inspirational teacher is a patronizing nightmare
The biggest problem with Rise is that its biggest character is a mess.
The show wholeheartedly believes in Lou and his single-minded “vision,” as expressed via his many, many sweeping monologues. He’s positioned from the start as Rise’s moral center, the one who will inspire the best in people when everyone else has given up on dreaming bigger. (And yes, the pilot sure does let him rap some Hamilton.)
But you know how Belle’s “Bonjour!” song in Beauty in the Beast is meant to be charming until it becomes clear the whole thing hinges on her smiling through pity for this “little town full of little people”? That’s how I felt watching Rise as it tried to convince me that Lou knows best and everyone he steamrolls will be better off for the trampling. With Radnor turning the righteousness up to 11, Lou is a one-stop shop of condescension and petulance, and the show doesn’t realize it until way too late in the season.
As Tracy (Perez) tries to make the show happen while considering practical obstacles, and the kids do their damn best to tackle material that challenges everything they’ve been taught, Lou fumes, interrupts, and pontificates until he finally triggers the response he wants. He’s actively unpleasant to watch — which is a problem, given that the show rests squarely on his tweed-clad shoulders.
In January, Katims was asked at the Television Critics Association’s winter press tour about how he created the character of Lou. More specifically, Katims was asked why he decided to adapt Volpe’s true story from one about being a closeted gay man coming to terms with himself into that of a restless straight family man.
“We took [Drama High] as an inspiration, and then I really felt like I needed to make it kind of my own story,” Katims offered, pointing out that the show does feature LGBTQ storylines with the kids. That comment didn’t go over great; “straightwashing” a character isn’t a good look, especially when the story is drawn from real life. When the Hollywood Reporter gave Katims a chance to respond to how the comment was “misconstrued” — which, I’m not sure how, that’s literally what he said — he reiterated that he wanted to come at Lou’s story from his own place “as a storyteller.”
I can understand Katims wanting to write from a more personal place. But watching Rise, it’s clear that Lou has no center beyond being some facsimile of an inspiring teacher, with little motivation beyond his own itch for Something More. While Rise’s Lou didn’t need to be gay to be a convincing character, I can’t help thinking that keeping Lou more true to his real-life inspiration as he tried to put on Spring Awakening — a musical about finding out who you truly are and what you want, and dealing with the consequences — would have been infinitely more compelling.
It’s a good thing, then, that while Lou is busy being annoyed with everyone and everything, the kids he professes to care about do their best to do that work for him.
Rise bites off more than it can chew, but some of its teen moments truly sing
The teens of Stanton High’s drama department are raw nerves, desperately hoping to strike greatness and terrified when they do.
They are the best parts of Rise by a mile.
As Lilette, Cravalho puts her Moana sincerity to good use, giving shape to a character who’s nervous but determined to make herself happy in a world that hasn’t let anything come easy. (And as Lilette takes on the role of Spring Awakening’s lead Wendla, Cravalho also reminds us all that, whew, can she sing.) As Robbie, Gillespie takes more time to settle, but once he gets into his acting groove, he’s a low-key surprise as one of the show’s more grounding forces.
In the storyline Katims pointed to as being representative of how Rise wanted to tackle issues of sexuality, Sutherland is excellent, balancing Simon’s vulnerability and defiance as he tries to deny the truth. And as the musical gets further into production, and his religious parents realize what’s at stake, Broadway veteran Stephanie J. Block doesn’t have to sing a note to leave a bruising impression as his conflicted mother.
Outside of these three teen characters, however, the show bites off more than it can chew in juggling multiple storylines, often ones that reflect the plot of Spring Awakening. This becomes especially frustrating when Rise ignores a promising idea or does drive-by character introductions as acknowledgments of bigger issues. When Lou finds a lead guitarist in a kid who rarely socializes because people make fun of his turban, for example, his speaking role is over once he officially joins the musical’s band. Meanwhile, a black girl in the chorus sporadically belts incredible solos but apparently didn’t merit a bigger role and therefore never speaks.
Maybe most frustrating is the overall lost opportunity with Michael. Played by genderqueer actor Desautels, Michael is a potentially great character who gets folded into the background in favor of Lilette and Robbie’s romance, Lou’s family issues, and even the drama department’s former diva Gwen (Amy Forsyth) struggling with her parents’ divorce.
It’s not that these storylines don’t have value, but you wouldn’t know that Michael’s role of Moritz is one of Spring Awakening’s biggest from how little time Rise affords him. It wouldn’t have been hard to give Michael a spotlight moment to sing one of Moritz’s showstopping numbers instead of watching Lilette belt “Mama Who Bore Me” for the 18th time, and yet we only get snippets.
And frankly, a trans teen playing Moritz — a character whose fascination with sex and sexuality becomes his downfall — is an engrossing, complex idea that nonetheless gets zero room to breathe. When Michael does get more screen time, in fact, it’s only to comfort his friend, who gets a spotlight episode deep into the season after not speaking a word beforehand.
It’s this kind of sporadic promise that makes Rise simultaneously watchable and frustrating. It knows what it wants, and every so often, it even achieves it. But when it falls short, it’s even more disappointing to know that it got so close.