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NBC's 'Rise' Rises Only So Far
March 13, 2018  | By David Hinckley


The real-life story behind NBC’s new Rise could make a wonderfully inspiring documentary. Whether it seeds a compelling weekly series could be a different question...

Rise, which premieres Tuesday, Mar. 13, at 10 p.m. ET, dramatizes the story of a teacher who energizes a school, and eventually a whole blue-collar Pennsylvania community, with his innovative theater program.

Josh Radnor plays Lou Mazzuchelli, who is based on a real-life teacher named Lou Volpe. Volpe and his theater program were the subject of a 2013 nonfiction book, Drama High, by New York Times writer Michael Sokolove, and Rise is an adaptation.

Mazzuchelli, weary of trying to interest bored students in anything he’s teaching them in his English classes, asks to take over the theater program almost on a whim. Theater isn’t exactly an obsession in this town, which has been stuck in the Rust Belt doldrums for decades, but Mazzuchelli figures at least maybe he’ll be working with kids who care a little about what they’re doing.

At first, the only people who notice his ascent are the teacher he replaces, Tracey Wolfe (Rosie Perez), and the football coach, Doug Strickland (Joe Tippett). It goes without saying that 98 percent of this town’s interest in its local high school is focused on the football team. Go, Tigers.

So a change in the theater department wouldn’t even make it onto Strickland’s radar ,except that Mazzuchelli discovers Strickland’s star quarterback has singing talent and asks him to try out for a theater production. Take a wild guess what Strickland thinks of that idea.

Viewers may remember a similar singing quarterback scenario from Glee, and yes, Rise does contain some echoes of Glee as well as, inevitably, Fame. Perhaps there’s a rule somewhere that shows built on high school performance programs must have single-word titles of no more than four letters.

Whether that’s true or not, Rise does bring in familiar elements, like parental reactions and intra-cast rivalries, and the general challenge of making theater performance seem cool or even acceptable in the lethal cauldron of high school.

The first episode introduces us to most of our early key characters. Damon J. Gillespie plays Robbie Thorne, the musical quarterback. Auli’i Cravalho (right) plays Lilette, in whom Mazzuchelli sees great promise. Ted Sutherland plays Simon Saunders, a quiet kid from a very religious family. Shirley Rumierk plays Vanessa Suarez, who has always had the lead role in school productions.

Mazzuchelli’s family also plays a prominent role. His wife Gail (Marley Shelton) is understanding about Lou’s desire to take on the theater group, though she’s worried that means he will have even less time for their teenage son Gordy (Casey Johnson), an angry kid who may have serious problems. Their younger daughter Kaitlin (Taylor Richardson) seems a bit more balanced, but she’s also becoming a teenager.

The town also serves as a prominent character, and it’s portrayed as we might expect: weary and depressed that it doesn’t seem to have any clear path back toward the prosperity everyone so fondly remembers. It’s a town most kids want to get out of.

So the elements are lined up for students, teachers and townspeople to all find hope and pride in the last place most of them would have thought to look. Mazzuchelli’s path to kindling this hope starts with personal charisma, which Radnor conveys nicely. His motivational comments aren’t revolutionary, but they feel emotional enough so we believe they can work.

He also overhauls the direction of the theater department. Instead of performing safe stock-company favorites like Grease, he has his students tackle Spring Awakening, a story built around a much more intense and serious examination of matters like teen sexuality, pregnancy and homosexuality.

We all know where this is going. Once word gets out and the script starts circulating, Mazzuchelli will be ordered to cease and desist. And he and the kids will fight back, and we viewers will of course be 100 percent on their side. In this scenario, they are Rocky.

That’s fine. That’s not the problem for Rise. The problem is the way all these dynamics unfold. Whether the scriptwriters feel they should adhere to what happened in real life, or whether they just want to move the story along, the pacing feels jerky. Obstacles dissolve too quickly. People’s minds change, or they take stands, with no run-up.

Perhaps once the pieces are in place, Rise will find a more comfortable rhythm. In the opening scenes, it feels like the feet are moving too fast, and too often, between brake and accelerator.

The fact the story rose in real life doesn’t mean it can’t fall on TV.

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