As TV has aggressively expanded its scripted output, it’s begun to lean hard on that entertainment-industry standby: “Appealing kids put on a show.” “Rise,” a moderately winning drama that follows those familiar contours, will instantly draw comparisons to “Glee,” though it eschews that program’s slick sheen and barbed sarcasm. It also contains parallels to everything from “Lady Bird” to the retro Netflix comedy “Everything Sucks!,” in which a motley assortment of gawky teens make a sci-fi movie with a few dollars and a whole lot of determination.
Money is also an issue for the characters of “Rise,” which is set in a hardscrabble Pennsylvania community where the local steel mill shut down a few years ago. Even without knowing there is a “Friday Night Lights” connection (thanks to showrunner Jason Katims), a savvy viewer would note its influence immediately. Between the shaky-cam shooting style and the plaintive tones emanating from the soundtrack, there’s a lot of overlap between the two emotionally driven NBC dramas (and some key moments unfold under those bright game-day lights as well).
Once again, Katims — the creator of “Rise” — has set his tale among parents, teachers, coaches, and high schoolers just trying to figure it all out in a close-knit town that has seen better days. This time, however, the majority of the action takes place not on the football field, but among members of Stanton High School’s beleaguered theater department. And for all its flaws — and “Rise” has a number of them — when these kids open their mouths to sing, the NBC drama is nearly irresistible.
Fans of musicals will likely be the core audience for “Rise,” which chronicles Stanton High’s controversial staging of the acclaimed musical “Spring Awakening.” One of “Rise’s” most outstanding cast members is Auli’i Cravalho (“Moana”), who has an expressive, gorgeous voice, and who is earnest and credible as the daughter of a local waitress who wants more than her single mother has been able to achieve. Cravalho’s Lilette Suarez is cast as a lead in the musical, and is paired with the hunky quarterback of the football team, Robbie Thorne (Damon J. Gillespie). The show’s director knows that the chemistry between the two — which is also a cornerstone of what works about “Rise” as a TV show — will make his production come alive, despite the inexperience of certain members of the troupe or the financial limitations of the production.
It’s somewhat surprising that the 10-episode drama doesn’t evolve into a murder mystery, given the sheer number of people who understandably want to strangle Lou Mazzuchelli (Josh Radnor), the disaffected English teacher who decides to direct the school play despite never having done it before. One repetitive dynamic that the show is too enamored of involves Lou charging into situations he has little experience with and undermining his collaborators (lecturing the orchestra leader, for example, or presenting the set builders with impossible demands). Those around him try to get him to see reason as he pontificates, but he is framed as a crusading or misunderstood artiste. The problem is, for one who believes in art as a way of allowing people to “feel seen,” he’s not great at observing the frustrated faces around him, and his very slow journey toward greater humility is not nearly as engaging as the show appears to think it is.
Of course, a good chunk of “Rise” revolves around Lou getting others to dream bigger and no longer settle; that’s the flip side of his ambitious obliviousness. Thanks to his own newly awakened aspirations, Lou somehow gets the community to tentatively support their kids putting on “Spring Awakening,” despite the edgy and dark material in the show. In doing so, he upstages Tracey Wolfe (Rosie Perez), who has been doing the heavy lifting in the theater department for years. That she completely refrains from punching Lou is not quite believable, but Perez makes Tracey’s driven forbearance work. And it is a credit to Radnor’s quietly sincere performance that the character works some of the time. Lou is a big-hearted guy, understanding of a trans teen in the cast, and truly enjoys the flowering of creativity in Stanton.
Like all ensemble dramas, “Rise” has a lot of characters and plotlines to service, and the level of specificity and freshness in each narrative isn’t consistent. Your interest level will likely go up and down in tandem with the quality of certain subplots. Rarmian Newton is terrific as lighting tech Maashous Evers, who, Lou discovers, is essentially homeless (his foster mother is neglectful at best). Amy Forsyth is also outstanding as the guarded and soulful Gwen Strickland, whose parents are enduring a rocky time in their marriage. The story of an overbearing football dad, however, feels derivative, and Lilette’s mom also does not quite work in the first half of the season. But even if certain football storylines or moments set in the local diner seem like faint imitations of events in Dillon, Texas, “Rise” offers scenes of the kids staging “Spring Awakening” that are often pulse-quickening.
Lou wants the students to use art as a vessel for their hopes, dreams, and uncertainties — and he’s doing the same for himself (his own troubled high schooler is putting the family through the wringer). This troupe — and “Rise” itself — treats art as “sacred,” a word that the characters use fairly regularly. “Rise” wears its heart unabashedly on its sleeve, and though it rather gingerly handles matters of race, class, gender, and LGBT rights, it does touch on these issues.
In a sense, the show itself is a rumination on whether a song would be enough to bridge any number of American divides. Part of the appeal of “Rise” is that it sure would be nice to think so.