A high school teacher, bored with the routine in his life, decides to wake things up by taking on the drama department.
Never mind there’s a director who’s entrenched. He’s eager to make a difference. And so, we get “Rise,” a mashup between “Glee” and “Friday Night Lights.”
Since this new NBC series is also produced by the man behind TV’s “Lights,” it has a good chance of working and getting at the heart of what makes today's teenagers tick.
Loosely based on the book “Drama High,” “Rise” follows Lou Mazzuchelli (Josh Radnor) as he sets out on his journey of awakening. Immediately, he gets push back – from the teacher he’s bumping (Rosie Perez), the parents who don’t like his choice of material and the students who feel they’ve been pushed aside.
There’s a lot of angst but that’s because Mazzuchelli isn’t staying in his lane. He doesn’t want to do another production of “Grease.” He’s eager to stage “Spring Awakening,” a musical that deals with all sorts of sexual feelings and, yes, NSFW dialogue. Somehow, he gets rehearsals going, casts the school’s star quarterback (Damon J. Gillespie) and a wallflower (Auli’I Cravalho) who can sing and leaves the regulars in supporting parts.
In the opener, discord is everywhere. At home, he’s dealing with a son who may have a drinking problem. At parent meetings, he’s brushing up against the “this is the way we’ve always done it” crowd. The mess doesn’t seem like it’s worth it.
Still, Jason Katims borrows from his “FNL” past and finds common ground – the kind that says this could be something special.
While the students sing selections from the Tony-winning musical, they’re not breaking into song to reflect their feelings. This is very much a “songs belong on the stage” situation. That helps the show's credibility and eases the angst.
Although Katims glosses over some big issues (why would the school let a rookie take over a veteran’s passion?) and doesn’t really get into the R-rated tone of the musical until well into the rehearsal period, “Rise” does give audiences a realistic glimpse at kids today.
Robbie Thorne (Gillespie) may look like he has everything in his favor, but Katims pulls back the curtain and shows just how stressful talent can be. Similarly, the life Lilette Suarez (Cravalho) leads often involves parenting a parent. Before the third episode unfolds, there’s a chorus of issues that join in.
“Rise” isn’t as heartbreaking as “Friday Night Lights” or as complex as “Parenthood” but it’s in an embryonic stage and has the potential to become the next big must-see entry on NBC’s schedule.
Gillespie and Cravalho hold our interest, but it’s Perez who bears watching. When she comes around to Radnor’s thinking, “Rise” gets an opportunity to address plenty of issues plaguing schools today. She’s not just the voice of dissent. She’s the teacher we know so well who, maybe, cares too much.
“Rise” airs at 9 p.m. March 13 on NBC.