This comparison has already been made several times, and will probably be made many more, but Rise truly is what you would get if you threw Glee and Friday Night Lights into a blender and then strained and discarded the grainy excess bits everyone hates drinking. This comparison shouldn’t come as a surprise as Jason Katmis, the creative drive behind Rise was also the executive producer of FNL, and, well, how many primetime high school musical shows have there been besides Glee. Putting aside the comparisons to shows of the past, Rise is a drama that stands on its own, and in just the pilot alone is able to deliver strong, emotional, and relatable storylines.
Lou Mazzuchelli (Josh Radon) is Stanton High’s less douchey version of Will Schuester. He is a veteran English teacher of 17 years who wants to do something more to impact the lives of his students while also bringing more fulfillment into his own. Actually, the fact that he cares about his students makes him almost the opposite of Will Schuester, but we can save that discussion for another time.
Rise’s Stanton High School is located in a rural-ish area of Pennsylvania which I assume is a Pittsburgh surrogate of sorts from the numerous images of shut down steel factories in the first two minutes of the pilot. It is a blue collar town with conservative values and football. Stanton High’s theater department though is a bit stale, having done three productions of Grease in the last decade. With the former head of the Theater Department retiring, Lou easily convinces the principle to name him as department head due to his robust theater experience: a single summer camp reprisal of Fiddler on the Roof. With his new position solidified, and the help of Ms. Tracy Wolfe (Rosie Perez) he is on his way to put together a production of the edgy and controversial Spring Awakening with the theater geeks of Stanton High School.
What is nice about Rise is that there isn’t a clear and distinct “Main” character among these teens. Each of them has their own drama and issues to deal with. Since much of the pre-premiere advertising focuses on Auli’i Cravalho’s Lilette (of Moana fame) though, she seems like a good place to start. Lilette and her mother Vanessa are somewhat of pariahs of the Stanton High community. At least in the eyes of Gwen Strickland they are. Gwen is convinced that her father has been living in a motel for the past few weeks due to an affair with Vanessa. While Vanessa initially denies these allegations, Lilette soon discovers her mother is indeed in a secret relationship with Gwen’s father, Stanton Football Coach, Doug Strickland. To make the dynamic between these girls even more awkward, Lilette just beat out Gwen (the lead of the last four school productions) for the lead role of Wendla.
After a very lackluster turnout for the first day of Spring Awakening auditions, Lou discovers the potential of the young star quarterback, Robbie Thorne, when he drops a rhyme at the school’s pep rally. Initially, Lou thinks there is no way to get Robbie to audition for the show until Robbie gets a 47 on his latest English test. Apparently, there is a state law or mandate or something that states players are suspended from athletics for a week if they fail a test. (Do you think this also applies to essays? What about quizzes?) The principal, Coach Strickland and Robbie’s father all meet with Lou requesting that he change the young student athlete’s grade. Lou has a better idea though, he will make the test score disappear as long as Robbie auditions for the musical.
Robbie is cool with auditioning for the show. The only people who seem to object are Robbie’s father and Coach Strickland who are counting on this young teenage boy for their own personal success. What they don’t know is that while Robbie may be a star on the field, he was made to be on the stage. His face and body light up as he auditions for Melchiore and he connects to the character in a way he has never been able to in any class. While his father is putting pressure on his son to focus only on football, his mother who is in a treatment center of some sort, tells him to follow his heart and do the show.
My favorite character of Rise though is Maashous, the lights guy. I thought his name was Ignatius at first, but upon further investigation (aka looking at IMDB) I learned his true name. Anywho, Maashous has one of the best introductions of the series. After overhearing Lou practice his “Why Spring Awakening” speech to an empty auditorium, Maashous responds with:
Maashous: “What says smash hit better than repressed teenagers in 19th Century Germany”
Later when Lou discovers that Maashous is living in the theater’s lighting booth after leaving his latest foster home, he invites him to stay with his family until they figure out what to do next. Maashous is smart, adorable, and caring, and introduces Lou to one of the best chorus singers in the school:
Maashous: “Margaret Holliwell. Pretty soon he’ll be Michael Holliwell. Anyway I know we need guys for the show.”
When Michael arrives at rehearsal the next day, Lou asks him how he would like to be addressed and subsequently crosses Michael’s dead name off of the call sheet. My heart warmed and tears filled my eyes at this moment. In the pilot episode of this series, Rise introduced a transgender character without sensationalizing it, without demeaning that character, without making it be a “very special” storyline. They treated it as something everyone should accept because it is something everyone should accept.
But alas, the world is not as accepting as we would like, and some of the kids are struggling to tell their parents about their role in this new play, especially Simon. Not only does Simon struggle with his own sexual identity when cast as Hanschen, but he is forced to explain the play and his part to his extremely religious parents. After Simon’s parents, and what I assume would be several others as well, complain to the school about the contents of the show, the principal dismisses Lou from his newly obtained theater directorship and forces Ms. Wolfe to put on another production of Pirates of Penzance because they “already have the costumes.”
The crushed teens don’t take this news very well, and after several days of being forced to rehearse the new production, they say “screw it” and burn all of Stanton High’s pirate costumes in protest!
I really loved the pilot of Rise. It is pretty rare that I cry during a series premiere but watching Lou cross out Michael’s dead name and seeing this group of kids come together to show the administration how much Lou and the Spring Awakening meant to them caused tears to flow freely down my face.
- I feel like I say this in every single TV show about High School I review, but HOW DO THESE KIDS HAVE SO MUCH TIME BEFORE SCHOOL?!?! Robbie goes to visit his mom in the care center that has yet to be explained and ALSO has time for pre-school football practice. Also, Lilette pulls the morning shift at the diner her mom works at before heading to first period. Was I just a lazy AF teenager for not having all these pre-school activities, has HS changed, or is this just TV magic?
- When Lou used Robbie’s failing test grade to recruit him to audition the first thing that popped into my head was “Well at least he didn’t plant weed in the football player’s locker to blackmail them into auditioning like Will Schuester did to Finn on Glee.” Man Will Schuester was truly the worst even from the beginning.