If you were to draw a Venn diagram of the people who loved Glee and the people who loved Friday Night Lights, would there be a lot of viewers in the center?
NBC is betting yes. Rise, from Friday Night Lights producer Jason Katims and Hamilton producer Jeffrey Seller, is tailor-made for these viewers. Please allow me to illustrate via a rundown of the show’s characters:
Lou Mazzuchelli (Josh Radnor): Veteran teacher Mr. Mazzuchelli takes over the high school theater program, changing the musical from the done-to-death Grease to the controversial Spring Awakening. Lou is prone to impassioned speeches and gosh darn it, he believes in these kids. That’s right he’s Mr. Schue from Glee (although so far minus the rapping).
Robbie Thorne (Damon J. Gillespie): Star football player Robbie Thorne must balance being QB1 with a lead role in the school musical. His teammates and his coach (Joe Tippet) resent that the musical is taking Robbie’s focus off the game. Yes he’s the perfect mix of Finn from Glee and Matt Saracen from FNL. Just as Saracen had to care for his ailing grandmother, Robbie must look out for his sickly mother, who lives in a nursing home (five episodes in and his mom’s condition has yet to be defined). Oh, and he’s also a Justin Guarini lookalike, but I digress.
Simon Saunders (Ted Sutherland): Simon is a terrific performer who isn’t quite ready to come to terms with his sexuality. Like Kurt on Glee, he even leaves his public high school to attend a private prep school.
Gwen Strickland (Amy Forsyth): The football coach’s daughter is used to getting the starring role in all the school plays, just like Rachel Berry.
Lilette Suarez (Auli’i Cravalho): The daughter of a woman with a reputation (think Tyra on FNL), Lilette is best friends with Simon and, also just like Rachel Berry, she falls for football star Robbie Thorne.
I’ll stop, but I could go on and on. The show is ripping pages from well-known sources (and that’s not even including “Drama High,” the book the series is very loosely based on). Katims is renowned for making viewers cry. His Parenthood was This is Us before This is Us. But Friday Night Lights and Parenthood both had joy in them—characters or situations that made us laugh. In addition to being incredibly good looking, Tim Riggins (sigh) brought a lot of levity to his character. As did Landry on Friday Night Lights or Crosby on Parenthood. There’s no levity in Rise—everything is very, very serious.
Set in the (fictional) dying steel town of Stanton, Pennsylvania and filmed in muted sepia tones, Rise is incredibly melancholy, a downer Glee. Part of that is due to the fact that Spring Awakening is decidedly not the feel-good musical of the year: It explores teenage sexuality in late 19th century Germany (and, in a full-circle moment, Lea Michele starred in the Broadway version). Everyone, including the school principal and Simon’s parents, thinks the school shouldn’t do the show. “It tells the truth. Being a teenager is hard,” Lou says as a defense. (By the way, a quick Google search reveals that high schools actually have put on the show.) But Rise hanging its season on Spring Awakening means there’s never a “Don’t Stop Believin’” moment, a brightly colored, cheery number to lift the spirits of the characters and the viewers. The bleakness of the series is exhausting.
And Radnor’s Lou is so idealistic and over-the-top. He’s prone to saying things like, “I believe in the kids I teach. I believe in the truth. I believe in helping them to grow up in the sun and not in the shadows.” You can almost feel Radnor’s former How I Met Your Mother buddies rolling their eyes at him. It’s a special kind of show that can pull off sappiness without being sappy. Rise is not that show.
Rosie Perez does her best Rosie Perez as assistant theater director Tracey Wolfe. Tracey is married to her job, with little time for anything else. She doesn’t make things easy for anyone. Attacking the school board for giving more money to the football program than to theater, she says, “What does football do but give these kids concussions?” and “The arts is what separates us from the apes.”
I used to love/make fun of the way the gang on Glee could put together Broadway-level production numbers with extensive choreography and elaborate props with zero preparation. Rise is the opposite of this. We get the nitty-gritty minutiae of their preparation. Five episodes in and it certainly feels like the finale is building toward the big performance in the way that a season of Friday Night Lights ended with the state championship.
Cravalho, the voice of Moana, is terrific, as is much of the cast. As Lou’s troubled son, Gordy, Casey W. Johnson brings more to the role than just being a jerk. Gillespie is adorable and can pull off rapping the lines “shout out to my pops and his trophy wife.” Rarmian Newton, as hard-working foster kid Maashous Evers, also transcends stereotypes. Ellie Desautels, as transgender student Michael, is particularly effective.
A self-confessed theater geek, I’m the choir Rise is preaching to. But even with the strong cast, I still feel like I bought tickets to a Broadway show I really, really wanted to see and I didn’t get my money’s worth. That being said, I couldn’t stop watching. So there’s definitely something here. I’m just waiting for the series to rise to its potential.
Rise premieres tonight at 10 p.m. on NBC.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer, a member of the Television Critics Association and the Assistant TV Editor for Paste. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal) or her blog .