TV HUNTER: NBC's absorbing 'Rise' takes time to find its voice
March 12--When NBC next invites families to huddle around the television for an elaborate live musical event, it's unlikely to ask them to digest a three-hour rendition of "Spring Awakening," the Germany-set rock musical about teen sexuality, abortion, incest and swearing.
Beloved in the theater community for its fearless and frank tale of teenagedom's darker elements, the Peacock network has taken another avenue to bringing the show to prime time -- by building its next (mostly) great drama series around a high school production of it.
"Rise" (9 p.m. Wednesdays) is an impressive and absorbing drama from "Friday Night Lights" and "Parenthood" creator Jason Katims that finds Lou Mazzuchelli, an unassuming and restless English teacher played by "How I Met Your Mother's" Josh Radnor, trying to pull himself out of a funk by taking over his school's fledgling theater department. Unfortunately, that role is already filled by the spitfire that is Rosie Perez as Tracey, a woman who has dedicated much of her adult life to the program but remains a chronic pain to the administration.
They teach in Stanton, a small Pennsylvania town still clawing its way out of an unemployment pit thanks to the shuttering of its steel mill, a trauma it nurtures with an over reliance on high school football.
Filling the ranks of the neglected theater department are the theatrical personalities you might expect, including Lillette ("Moana" herself, Auli'i Cravalho), a shy ingenue with a big voice; Gwen (Amy Forsyth), the passionate leading lady sidelined by Lou in favor of mentoring the talent he sees in Lillette; Robbie (Damon J. Gillespie), the good-hearted, rapping quarterback reluctantly recruited to be a leading man; and Simon (Ted Sutherland), a talented singer caught between his devout religion and his burgeoning sexual awareness.
Since it was picked up last summer, the show has consistently been dubbed a concoction of "Friday Night Lights'" high school realism and "Glee's" musical tendencies. But "Rise" treads much closer to the former. It's never a big, flashy production, using musical numbers that are segmented and rarely completed. On a stage where colossal personalities usually fight for the spotlight, these characters and the show itself are largely reserved in most respects. It's a drama with music rather than a musical drama.
But it all starts out on a pitchy tune. Frankly, it's hard to see Radnor in this role and not think Ted Mosby (his grating "HIMYM" character) with a beard. Lou is also instantly problematic as he blindly snatches the directing job with no real experience to speak of from a talented, qualified woman and gives no forewarning to his understanding but strained wife, Gail (Marley Shelton). He's just not that compelling when standing next to his musically inclined charges (think Mr. Shu's role on "Glee").
The choppy pilot also does no favors for a few of the show's characters, whose early motivations don't ring true to the story they find themselves in. Robbie's jump from theater-adverse jock to charging thespian is head spinning. But as it tightens up and focuses moving forward, "Rise's" strengths in creativity and storytelling emerge. Inspired stories begin to form like Simon's hesitation to grapple with his sexuality and the gentle-but-confident march for equality among the boys by Michael (Ellie Desautels), a transgender character.
More so than anything, "Rise" feels born from a deep-rooted love of musical theater, but one more closely aligned with the renewed mainstream interest in the art form, thanks to an injection of fresh blood from cultural hits like "Hamilton," which gets name checked multiple times in the pilot.
This is the story of a new generation of musical theater nerds who shake off the standards of the past -- Lou literally tosses out a planned production of "Grease" the minute he takes over -- for the more contemporary classics. There's more inclusion and room for new voices. It's (eventually) moving and heartwarming in the ways you want, it just has to move past the rocky first rehearsal stage of its story.
In short, "Rise" is a very good show that has the makings of a great one once those opening night jitters slip away and it begins to sing in harmony with its own intentions.
Reporter Hunter Ingram can be reached at 910-343-2327 or Hunter.Ingram@StarNewsOnline.com. Hunter is a member of the Television Critics Association.