I was never involved in theater in school, but I learned to appreciate it during my years covering arts and entertainment for newspapers (even if my love of music, movies and TV was why I initially sought those jobs). Not to discount the pleasure of seeing a well-performed play or musical, but what I most remember is the theaters themselves and the groups of high school or college students or community members who performed in them.
In the years since arts reporter gigs have disappeared, I’ve missed seeing shows come together at rehearsals in homey and homely old theaters, but “Rise” (9 p.m. Eastern Tuesdays, NBC) brings back some of that flavor. Created by Jason Katims (“Friday Night Lights,” “Parenthood”), it also might be the best TV series at capturing the 2018 high school zeitgeist.
Since I don’t spend time in modern high schools, I can only go by gut feeling and what I read in the news, but it seems like school is more open to diversity (or students are more bored with trying to put down people who are out of the ordinary) than in my era, the 1990s (setting of the excellent Netflix series “Everything Sucks!”).
So while “Rise” has an air of “Let’s get every topical minority group represented,” it’s airy about it; it doesn’t wield a blunt hammer. It’s heartwarming that the theater club is a comfortable place for these kids to come together – the closeted gay student from a religious family (Casey Johnson as Gordy), the transgendered student (Ellie Desautels as Michael), the girl with a bad rep (Auli’i Cravalho as Lilette Suarez), the foster kid who secretly lives in the light booth (Rarmian Newton as Maashous Evers), and the quarterback who is more inspired by the “Spring Awakening” script than the football playbook (Damon J. Gillespie as Robbie Thorne).
They unite under the wing of Lou Mazzuchelli (“How I Met Your Mother’s” Josh Radnor), a.k.a. “Mr. Mazzu,” who can’t get his English students to give the remotest rip about “The Grapes of Wrath” but who has better luck with the open-to-possibilities theater kids. The members of the previous, staid reign (they go to the “Grease” well too often) – director Tracy Wolfe (Rosie Perez) and the kids who used to get the lead roles – are understandably irked at being displaced. But by the end of episode one, through the twin inspirations of the “Spring Awakening” script and Mazzuchelli’s brand of desperation-borne confidence, they are on board. This unofficial mutual inspiration society burns the costumes for “Pirates of Penzance” and tells the powers that be – the principal and football coach, natch — that it’s “Spring Awakening” or bust.
If you’re reading those plot and character descriptions before watching “Rise,” and if you’ve seen the promos that are obnoxiously heavy on Macklemore’s “Glorious,” you’d be forgiven for saying “I’ve seen this all before. Hard pass.”
That discounts the Katims touch, though. He’s easily the best-ever TV showrunner who adapts works rather than coming up with his own ideas – like those old BASF commercials, he doesn’t make the products you buy, he makes the products you buy better. Here, he’s working from Michael Sokolove’s book “Drama High,” and he brings a “Friday Night Lights” sensibility to the material. Rest assured, the link to Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s “Glee” goes no further than the similar premises.
“Rise” is set in a Pennsylvania town with its best days behind it, as a closed steel mill in the opening montage tells us in shorthand. On top of that are the usual public school bureaucratic and economic problems, but they are genuine. Indeed, when Mr. Mazzu reluctantly informs his troupe they have to do “Penzance” – the rights are free, they own the costumes, and there will be no controversy over the content – it seems like a done deal. You can’t fight City Hall – or more specifically, the school board and the taxpaying public. But then they burn the pirate costumes to exercise what little power they have and a viewer thinks “Maybe, just maybe, they can pull this off.”
It’s not all weepy sappiness and uplifting melodrama, though. Most bluntly: How is a no-budget troupe going to pay for the rights to “Awakening?” And it’s likely the community will reject the controversial musical, just as Gordy’s parents do. It’s possible the coach and principal will have tricks up their sleeves to get Robbie Thorne to put football ahead of theater. It’s probable that Mazzuchelli will be among the four teachers the principal lays off in order to meet the budget. With a piano-teacher wife (Marley Shelton) and three kids at home – and now Maashous, too – being unemployed would, among other problems, make Lou’s modest theatrical dream impossible.
What’s important is that “Rise” isn’t cynical. It’s not original, mind you, as these character arcs have been done before. But Katims and pilot episode director Mike Cahill treat the material like they BELIEVE it’s original. There are no pop-culture references other than theatrical ones; there is no Murphy/Falchukian “We know you’ve seen this before” winking; there is nothing meta about “Rise.” It’s a show about a small, poor public school theater club in 2018, with no additional hook. But it vaguely promises more, and – propped up by my appreciation of Katims and real people who work at no-budget theaters — I believe that promise enough to come back for episode two.