“Rise” attempts greatness before losing its footing

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 The new NBC musical drama, “Rise,” is based on the true story of a beleaguered high school theater department and the even more beleaguered, but still hopeful, teacher who seeks to rejuvenate it. Potential runs rampant through the show based on a true story, but one too many false notes keep it from being the inspirational programming its creators probably hoped it would be.

“Rise” and its cast

Before I formed my opinion about the show, I watched as many episodes as were available, and refused to read reviews. That is as close to unbiased as I was going to get. However, after my opinion formed, I was determined to find that I had company in terms of my assessment of the teen-driven drama.

Based on the previews, I pegged the show as one part “Fame,” and one part “Stand and Deliver.” There is music involved, and at least one parent who wants her daughter to temper her dreams with reality.

What I found was a mix of reviews. Some media outlets loved it and others found Justin Radnor (of “How I Met Your Mother” fame) annoying or aggravating as drama teacher, Lou Mazzuchelli. Maybe part of the problem is that he does a great deal of acting with his eyes and it is as though every other scene with him is a shot of his large, dark orbs moving thoughtfully.

Still, others are disappointed that of all the show’s “truths,” that of the teacher is not one of them. In the book version, which is a memoir,  Radnor’s character is a closeted gay man, who struggles not only with the odds against the theater department but his sexual orientation. That would have upped the sometimes lacking tension considerably.

As for the teens that keep the musical and other parts of the show moving, they can sing a bit better than others in their television demographic. However, perhaps because of the musical they finally decide on “Spring Awakening” they sound as if they are singing the same song over and over. Each one sadder than the last. There is nothing wrong with ballads if that is a person’s taste, however, the songs seem to work to manipulate audiences, instead of cueing them in, or moving the plot forward.

The teens represent white, Latinx, black, gay, transgender, homeless, athletic, spiteful and hopeful. One of the most interesting plot lines involves a talented redhead, who is at odds with a Latinx girl whose mother has an affair with the redhead’s father. The show does a good job of using the tension between the two in the pilot. While sitting with her own friends, the white girl makes a disparaging remark about the Latinx girl’s mother. Audiences keep watching to figure out why she would say something so rude, and if it’s true, how does the girl know?

Some reviewers have taken the show to task for under-utilizing students of color. The one black girl in the chorus, and pretty much all of the other non-white students. The quarterback is black, and he gets a lead role, but his commitment to the team is undercut by his desire to perform in the musical, and vice versa.

It doesn’t mean that stereotypes regarding black people and singing should be indulged, but it is odd that those students seem silenced. Is Radnor’s character so clueless that he can’t hear talented singers? By the end of the second episode, audiences wonder.

In addition to the teen cast issues, there is the problem of Radnor, Rosie Perez and the principal who pits them against each other. The basic issue is that Radnor’s character decides suddenly, that he can do a better job with the theater than Perez’s character. He goes to the principal and asks for it. Without consulting Perez’s character, the principal gives Radnor the department. Eventually, Perez comes back and the two work together on bringing a musical to life.

However, it is problematic that the job of theatre director is just handed to another teacher without consulting the faculty member who currently holds the position.

“Rise” the setting

“Rise” is set in a working-class city in Pennsylvania. The opening scenes in the pilot show remnants of the city’s steel mill glory days. The school’s deplorable budget is a character who plays a role in almost every scene. Because there is no money to pay teachers, there is no money for drama productions, but there is money for football. The budget is the topic of conversation almost every time adults are in one room. In an early scene, the principal complains to Lou’s character about having to fire four teachers because he can’t afford to keep them. We get it; the budget is bad.

One of the best moments involving the budget happens at a school board meeting. After Lou (Radnor) makes a lackluster plea for the drama department’s funds and attempts to represent the department. Perez’s character, Tracy, stands up and reminds the school board that the arts are necessary because they separate people from animals, and football makes concussions. It is the best moment, and it highlights how underused Perez is.

“Rise” has so much potential. The question is will viewers stick around for the second or third acts to see if all the parts come together in a satisfying way.

 

 

 

 

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