Nothing in popular culture has had as big an impact on my life as Glee, which first premiered at the start of my freshman year of high school. Because of how invested I was in Glee during my four years of high school (way too much but that’s a post for a different day), I was excited yet cautious about watching Rise, NBC’s newest show which they pitched during the Winter Olympics as essentially the love child of Friday Night Lights and Glee.
Adapted by Jason Katims from Michael Sokolove’s non-fiction book, Drama High, Rise tells the story of an English teacher, Lou Mazzuchelli (Josh Radnor), who decides to take over the theatre department in order to add some meaning to his life. For some odd reason, Stanton High’s principal agrees to put him in charge even though it is already being run by Tracey Wolfe (Rosie Perez) and Lou has no qualifications whatsoever. Just because he is desperate for a chance, Lou agrees to work for less money than Tracey and is hired on the spot. Where Tracey likes to play it safe by directing the same familiar musicals with the same familiar leads, Mazzuchelli is just the opposite. He immediately replaces Grease with Spring Awakening and casts the quarterback of the football team as his male lead, which puts him at odds with the football program, and eventually, the entire town of Stanton.
As soon as I finished the pilot, I wanted more. I was glad when I found out NBC had made all 10 episodes in the first season available to reviewers. I binged all ten episodes quicker than I probably should have. They made me smile, they pulled on my heartstrings; they made me laugh and they made me sob. Once I finished, I couldn’t stop talking about it with a fellow reviewer who had watched them as well. It easily is one of my favorite shows in a very long time.
Despite how much I love this show, I do fully agree with the criticism that the pilot was a tad all over the place. The episode had to cram everything from Lou’s introduction to the setting to the life stories of the main students to the sizzle reel for the production of Spring Awakening into 42 minutes in order to set up the rest of the season. That info dump meant certain storylines were reduced to a few off-hand comments and when they return later in the season they seem to come out of nowhere, like Gordy’s addiction and Gwen’s general unhappiness.
Rise has drawn more than enough comparisons to Glee, as it should since there are so many similarities that it’s borderline eerie. There’s the teacher who was always inspired by the arts and suddenly finds himself a part of the arts, the school’s star football player essentially being forced into joining the arts by said teacher, the young, female lead who is just eager for her chance to shine, the closeted kid who feels conflicted about his family’s role in his life, and the entitled girl who develops a hatred for the female lead right off the bat.
However, where I think Rise finds itself being more authentic and timeless compared to Glee is in how the show uses music. Rise has clearly established that it’s not going to be a break-into-song-whenever show, it’s solely going to use the music of Spring Awakening in scenes centered around its production. This is a smart move by Katims as Glee very quickly fell victim to the cheesiness of breaking into song and what was hot in music at the time.
Without a doubt, the best part about Rise is the talented cast of young actors. Moana’s Auli’i Cravahlo proves she is more than just her gorgeous voice in her role as Lilette Suarez, a waitress’ daughter who gets cast as the female lead in the musical. She’s paired with the hot quarterback of the football team, Robbie Thorne (Damon J. Gillespie). These characters individually are extremely easy to root for, but they are stronger together. The chemistry between the two of them, both on stage and off, is earnest, believable and subtly sexy.
Ellie Desautels shines as Michael, a transgender boy who just wants people to accept him for who he is. It’s about time trans representation is brought to the forefront of television. I’m calling it now–Michael is going to be a character who changes viewers’ lives just for the simple fact his story is being told.
Amy Forsyth is also incredible as the quiet yet soulful Gwen Strickland, whose parents are experiencing ups-and-downs in their marriage; Casey Johnson’s portrayal of Gordy, Lou’s oldest son who struggles with alcohol addiction, is underrated in comparison but is still just as poignant as the rest of the cast. Without spoiling too much, Gwen and Gordy easily, and unexpectedly, became two of my favorite characters. These two have a natural chemistry and seeing them share scenes together made me super happy.
I could ramble on about how talented this cast is and I haven’t even started to touch on the performances of Ted Sutherland as Simon or Rarmian Newton as Maashous. This entire group of young talent was perfectly cast, with each one of them certain to make a name for themselves in Hollywood in the future.
If you were on the fence about Rise after the pilot, trust me when I tell you to stick with the show. By the end of its first season, the show provides all of the laughs, tears, warm fuzzy feelings and inspirational moments you had hoped would happen in the pilot. I promise it’s worth sticking with.
Rise airs Tuesday nights at 9/8c on NBC