The Musical Drama Rise Takes One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

It’s not blind, but it can’t quite see.

Josh Radnor and Ellie Desautels in NBC's Rise.
Josh Radnor and Ellie Desautels in NBC’s Rise.

Earlier this year, Jason Katims, the creator of Parenthood and the showrunner of Friday Night Lights, got in a smattering of trouble. Katims’ new show Rise, about a high school drama program in a down-at-the-heels Pennsylvania town, is based on the nonfiction book Drama High. The real-life hero of that book, Lou Volpe, was a closeted drama teacher who energized his students by putting on a production of the musical Spring Awakening. In Rise, Volpe has been reimagined as the straight family man Lou “Mr. Mazzu” Mazzuchelli (Josh Radnor) because Katims “felt like I needed to make it my own story,” though he promised that the show would otherwise be attentive to matters of sexuality and representation.

Rise, a downbeat, Trump-era take on Glee, has an everything-and-the-kitchen sink approach to identity, diversity, and plot points. The high school leads, both in the show and in the musical within the show, are Robbie Thorne (Damon J. Gillespie), the black high school quarterback, and Lilette Suarez, a previously unheralded nice girl, played by Moana’s Auli’i Cravalho, who is supposed to be Latina. Rosie Perez plays Tracey, the other drama teacher. Simon (Ted Sutherland) is a maybe gay kid from a conservative Catholic family. Michael (Ellie Desautels) is a transgender member of the troupe. Even the straight white kids have their own highly dramatic backgrounds. There’s Maashous (Rarmian Newton), a sweet homeless foster kid living in the light booth; Gordy (Casey W. Johnson), Mr. Mazzu’s alcoholic teen son, totally implausible as even a distant relative; and Gwen (Amy Forsyth), a great singer whose football coach father is having an affair with Lilette’s mother. But it’s still the concocted family man at the center of the show, created to be relatable, who is most fascinating of all, precisely because of how unrelatable he is. The show is an inadvertently mesmerizing and timely referendum on white male authority, because it doesn’t have a handle on Mr. Mazzu.

With a scruffy beard and bedhead, Radnor’s Mr. Mazzu is a married English teacher with three kids who wants more. One day he marches into the principal’s office and asks if he can run the drama program, even though he has no experience and the more qualified Tracey is already capably doing the job, putting up a staging of Grease. The principal, much to Mr. Mazzu’s surprise, agrees and doesn’t even bother to tell Tracey that she’s been demoted. Rise doesn’t ignore this original sin—a white male teacher marching in and taking over a job from a competent Latina who loves it, because he’s less of a pain and also he’s cheaper—but it doesn’t quite know what to do about it either. The show is too self-aware to ignore the unseemly way Lou got the job, but it’s too soft to fully grapple with it. It’s not blind, but it can’t quite see. That’s basically the motto of Rise: blurry eyes, full hearts, sometimes it loses.

Mr. Mazzu is supposed to be a well-meaning, inspiring hero type but he continually behaves like a small-time antihero, resolving his midlife crisis through a dramatic production of the controversial Spring Awakening. For such a sappy show—like This Is Us and Parenthood, Rise wants to make you cry so good—its ethics are surprisingly ends-justify-the-means, with Lou’s missteps excused because the outcomes are OK and the show must go on. Lou casts Simon in a gay part, because he senses that Simon may be questioning his sexuality, an unconscionably pushy thing to do that instigates a home-life crisis for him and his conservative parents. He demotes Gwen to a supporting part and then, because he thinks of her as a mean girl, has hardly any sympathy for her disappointment. He tells his wife he won’t let his new workload interfere with her job and then immediately has it interfere with her job. He regularly yells at Tracey, no longer paid to work for the drama program, for trying to curtail the expansive vision he’ll have to raise thousands of dollars for, when she’s just trying to do the best she can with the resources that they have.

Sometimes Lou’s single-mindedness is inspiring—these kids should have it all!—and sometimes it just seems snobby and irrational: Grease may not be as hip as Spring Awakening, but it’s also a show about sex and adolescence. Mr. Mazzu is like Rise itself: sweet, earnest, cloying, and also obnoxious. It’s filmed, for example, in showy, nauseating handheld style, as if a gritty aesthetic is needed to elevate the premise. And it’s set in Trump’s America but can’t find anyone to take issue with the staging of the play who isn’t a dopey villain. Will Mr. Mazzu find a way to get Spring Awakening staged, despite its controversial material and the parents who think it’s inappropriate? This is the central tension of the series, but you don’t have to watch to know the answer.

Mr. Mazzu’s passion is supposed to justify all of his behavior. But when Lou launches into one of his speeches, it feels like … a little much? Less talk and more instances of Lou being a good director would go a long way. Don’t get me wrong, this production of Spring Awakening looks great. In a recent piece in the New York Times, Katims talked about how he wanted to make the show “realistic” for a high school; he failed. Everyone is preternaturally talented, if, occasionally allowed to be pitchy—but it comes together way too easily. Rehearsals are excellent almost from the start, and the kids improve dramatically with the smallest suggestion. We never see Mr. Mazzu do any instructing, we just hear the kids say he’s special. (Katims may be riffing on his Friday Night Lights formula, where you didn’t much see Coach Taylor instructing players on how to run routes, but there’s more dramatic payoff in drawing musical performances out of high-schoolers than in nailing buttonhooks.)

I would be remiss in this review if I failed to express that, for all its flaws, Rise is extremely sticky. If you make it through the first two or three episodes, you will probably be perfectly resigned to seeing more. It is, after all, a show about high school students, and far as this particular critic is concerned, there is hardly anything more watchable than that. While Mr. Mazzu bumbles around, mistaking megalomania for passion, the high-schoolers flirt, sing, flirt some more, sing, crush on each other, dance, find themselves, fight prejudice, fall in love, bond, defy the people who would shutter the show, kiss, sing some more. They think this show is about them. If only it were.

Willa Paskin is Slate’s television critic.