Saturday, April 7, 2018

Falling Flat: NBC’s Rise

Rosie Perez and Josh Radnor in Rise. (Photo: Peter Kramer/NBC)

Towards the end of the third episode of NBC’s new high-school theatre drama Rise, an anxious mother (Stephanie J. Block), desperate for assurance that teacher Lou Mazzuchelli (Josh Radnor) is taking risks with her son’s future for the right reasons, asks him what he believes in. Before Radnor’s character could answer, my wife leaned over to me on the couch and deadpanned, “He believes in the kids.”

Three guesses what Lou says next.

There’s nothing wrong with adhering to formula or taking yourself seriously, but, as this anecdote indicates, Rise does both of these things to a fault. The show comes from Jason Katims, who earned a place for himself in the television pantheon with his acclaimed series Friday Night Lights and Parenthood. However, through at least three episodes, Katims and his writers haven’t figured out how to craft a coherent, plausible narrative that matches the gritty, realistic feeling that they’re going for. Rise holds together far better than Smash and Glee, two previous network dramas that focused on backstage drama in the performing arts and featured wildly inconsistent performances, tones, and narrative arcs, but it’s still not compelling enough to work right now.

The pilot follows Lou as he applies for the position of head of the drama program at Stanton High, a public school in a blue-collar Pennsylvania town. The show’s based on Michael Sokolove’s book Drama High, about a real-life teacher (also named Lou) who’s turned his school’s theatre program into a high-profile, cutting-edge laboratory for producing plays whose style and/or content might seem too risky for adolescents. However, the fact that Rise is based on a true story doesn’t alleviate some of the issues with the way that Katims sets up the show’s premise. The fictional Lou gets the gig running the drama program almost by default; the stipend that he receives from the school is half of what the previous director, Tracey (Rosie Perez), was earning, so his being hired is more about the school's cutting costs than about developing a newfound commitment to the arts. She’s understandably upset, but she sticks around, for reasons that I never felt were made sufficiently clear. Lou’s inexperienced, but he nevertheless jumps right in and declares that Stanton will produce Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater’s musical version of Spring Awakening. While it’s a good choice for high schoolers, it’s also the sort of play whose language and themes are so obviously going to provoke a backlash from puritanical parents that it’s kind of baffling that Lou is surprised at the ferocity of the opposition he meets. (There’s also more than a little irony in the fact that NBC wouldn’t be able to broadcast the musical itself without modifying it, given that one of its best-known numbers is titled “Totally Fucked.”)

Ted Sutherland and Auli'i Cravalho in Rise.

Radnor’s a capable actor, but he’s stuck in a difficult situation, and it doesn’t help that he’s haunted by the ghost of Ted Mosby, the character whom he played for 9 seasons on the CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother. Like Ted, Lou’s a guy whose lofty ambition and sincere good intentions tend to outpace his practical ability to follow through. However, whereas Mother played that recurring dilemma for laughs, here it’s used to generate dramatic tension, and that, combined with the show’s overwhelming earnestness and self-seriousness, just makes Lou look like someone who’s sadly out of his depth. When he casts Simon (Ted Sutherland), who’s clearly closeted and lives in a deeply conservative and religious family, as one of Spring Awakening's gay characters, it doesn’t feel daring so much as borderline immoral, given that he’s effectively outing the poor kid before he’s ready to acknowledge his sexuality. Perez’s Tracey might not be pushing her kids to live up to their fullest potential, but she’s smart, experienced, and doesn’t put up with nonsense; I found myself hoping that Lou would start listening to her sooner rather than later, both for his sake and for me and my fellow viewers.

As for the kids that Lou and Tracey have tasked themselves with inspiring, they mostly conform to familiar types, albeit ones that some of the actors find ways to make more complex and interesting. Auli’i Cravalho, in particular, manages to shake off the aw-shucks Disney princess persona that I occasionally found wearying in Moana and instead makes Lilette a somewhat interesting ingenue. She finds some complex notes to play in moments such as her awkward interactions with her mother, whom she loves but disapproves of and dreads becoming, and in her initial rehearsals, when she somehow manages to convince us she’s an inexperienced performer instead of a seasoned veteran who can take a flagpole to the head onstage without missing a beat. The other young cast members have their moments, although they haven’t yet fully evolved their characterizations beyond the clichés on which they’re based. Amy Forsyth’s Gwen is the jealous former star actor, who uses her seemingly inferior role in the show to channel some of her inner anguish, while star-quarterback-turned-thespian Robbie (Damon J. Gillespie) gets to rap lyrics penned by Lin-Manuel Miranda when his character fires up a crowd at a pep rally in the pilot.

The show’s visual aesthetic is seemingly designed to give it a sense of immediacy and reality, as well as a grittiness appropriate for its Rust Belt setting. There are lots of shaky closeups and muted colors, and at times it feels like Katims and Co. are pushing the Real Americanness of Stanton High a bit too much (or maybe I’ve just had my fill of media profiles of Trump supporters in Pennsylvania communities like Levittown or Reading, the similar setting of Lynn Nottage’s brilliant play Sweat). That emphasis on creating a sense of realism makes some of the show’s weaker narrative choices stand out even more, such as when Tracey bands together with Robbie and the other students to save Lou’s job at the end of the pilot; she oversees the burning of all the costumes for The Pirates of Penzance, which the school administration has decreed they must perform in place of Spring Awakening, while Robbie promises to boycott the football team unless he can do the play under Lou. As with so much else about the show right now, it’s sincere and heartfelt, but it also doesn’t make a lot of sense.

If I’m being unduly harsh with Rise, it’s because moments like these remind me how much I want to be able to buy into this show, given its cast, creative team, and subject matter, and how far it currently falls short of its potential. I’m still watching, curious to see if Katims and his crew can find a new direction for it. As it is, however, my wife and I continue to view each new episode with a sinking feeling that we’ll be able to predict exactly where this is all heading.

Michael Lueger teaches theatre classes at Northeastern University and Emerson College. He's written for WBUR's Cognoscentipage and HowlRound. He also tweets about theatre history at @theaterhistory

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