NBC has Found A New Hit: Rise
Jason Katims, the man who brought us wonderful shows like Friday Night Lights and Parenthood, has created a heartwarming, dynamic, and brave show that can last. Rise is real, gritty, and inspiring. When I first saw the trailer I was filled with butterflies. I am a long time theatre kid and TV lover, so to see two of my loves smashed together with Spring Awakening at its core, I was ecstatic. My mind did stray straight to Glee flashbacks, but while there are parallels, you won't see these kids randomly breaking into song. Rise and Glee both share the same message: be true to who you are and those who love you will support you no matter what your dreams are.
The main focus of the show is Lou Mazzuchelli, played by Josh Radnor (yes, Ted Mosby is now an English and Drama teacher). I questioned whether or not he would be able to dig deep enough into the grit required for his role in this drama, but I was pleasantly surprised. Radnor proves that he is capable and his passion for the work really shines through in h8is performance. He makes connections with his students that could rival Mr. Schuester from Glee.
Once again Katims has set his tale among the lives of parents, teachers, coaches and high schoolers just trying to figure out how to get by in a close-knit town that reminds me a lot of Dillon from Friday Night Lights. This time however most of the action doesn't happen on football field, but on the stage of Stanton High School's theatre department. And while the show does have its flaws, when these kids sing the show is irresistible. One of the best cast members is Auli'i Cravalho, known as Disney's Moana, who is expressive, earnest, and has an amazing vocal range. Her character dreams of being more than her mother, a waitress who is having an affair with the married football coach. Cravalho's Lilette is cast as the lead in the musical and paired with the hot quarterback of the football team, Robbie Thorne (Damon J. Gillespie). Casting Robbie causes sparks to fly on stage and fights to ensue within the school.
A good portion of Rise is dedicated to Lou trying to get others to see the bigger picture, dream more, and get on board his aspirations to put o Spring Awakening as the school musical despite the edgy, dark and mature material within the show. Like most ensemble dramas, there are a lot of characters and plot-lines,but the level of detail and freshness in each narrative isn't consistent. Some I wish I could just fast forward through, and others have me on the edge of my seat. Rarmian Newton is wonderful as the lighting tech Maashous Evers, who Lou brings into his home after finding him sleeping in the lightbox. Amy Forsyth is also riveting as the guarded and pain stricken Gwen Strickland, whose parents are going through a rough time, and she just misses getting the lead in the musical. Robbie's pushy football father seems cliche and overdone, and Lilette's mother doesn't quite fit into the show either. The scenes with the kids on stage steal the show, and some of their relationships save the show.
The show stands on using art as a vessel for the hopes, dreams, and uncertainties in these kids lives. This group of theatre kids "the troupe" treats art as something sacred. Rise wears its heart on its sleeve as it carefully manages issues of race, class, gender, and LGBTQ rights. Overall, I love it. I look forward to it every week, and I connect to it on a personal level. Well done NBC.