The series premiere of NBC’s new drama, “Rise,” at times resembles a gritty, dramatic reshoot of “High School Musical.”
The show follows a disillusioned English teacher who takes over a small-town high school’s drama department and leads a ragtag group of students in putting on “Spring Awakening” as the fall musical.
The shows’ stars pitch the series as more similar to “Friday Night Lights” than “Glee” — understandable since both “Friday Night Lights” and “Rise” are written and created by Jason Katims — but the parallels between the plots of “Rise” and “Glee” are too obvious not to compare: An unsatisfied teacher finds an opportunity to pursue his passions. He then discovers that the small-town starting quarterback can sing and manipulates him into pursuing the arts. Our heroic teacher leaves the program for a few minutes to add drama to the pilot’s third act, only to return victoriously, inspired by the passion of his students. The similarities between the two shows are often distracting, but new storylines introduced in later episodes could help “Rise” come into its own.
The show must develop the character of teacher Lou Mazzuchelli, or Mr. Mazzu, played by Josh Radnor, who seems like a failed combination of Mr. Schue — the fact that their nicknames are eerily similar does not help — from “Glee” and Coach Taylor from “Friday Night Lights.” Every one of Mr. Mazzu’s speeches is eye-roll inducing instead of inspiring. Radnor’s sitcom past starring as Ted Mosby in “How I Met Your Mother” did not train him for this level of depth, and in every scene the actor tries much too hard to be convincing.
The show also tries too hard to establish a marital dynamic similar to that of Eric and Tammi Taylor of “Friday Night Lights” between Mr. Mazzu and Gail Mazzuchelli, played by Marley Sheton, but Shelton just ends up appearing as a patient housewife, following her dreamer husband’s wishes instead of an equal partner in marriage.
In one of the show’s most cringeworthy moments, Mr. Mazzu playfully flirts with his wife by rapping along to the “Hamilton” soundtrack as his daughters blast it in the kitchen. Not only is the chemistry between Radnor and Shelton lacking, but it is too obvious a nod to how the musical shares producers Jeffrey Seller and Flody Suarez with “Rise.” After seeing countless promos for the show that touted the producers’ Broadway pedigree, the fact that the “Hamilton” soundtrack was playing within the first 10 minutes of the pilot feels forced.
Additionally, Radnor’s attempts at parenting his troubled football player son are difficult to believe. Radnor’s acting will require a lot of work for Mr. Mazzu to become inspiring instead of irritating.
Thankfully, the young actors playing the high school students shine. Auli’i Cravalho, best known as the voice of Disney’s “Moana,” is going to be a star. Her inexperience with acting is evident, but the camera is drawn to her open expressiveness and uplifting voice as Lilette Suarez, a high school student auditioning for the fall musical. She is the exact opposite of “Glee” diva Rachel Berry.
Her partner onstage is quarterback Robbie Thorne, played by Damon Gillespie, who is remarkably natural on camera given his limited professional experience. The chemistry between him and Cravalho is palpable and fun to watch.
One of the cheesiest and most unrealistic moments of the pilot, however, is when Robbie goes from uncomfortable on stage to a natural after hearing Mr. Mazzu’s wise words, “Don’t act, just be yourself.” Small things like this can be fixed, and Cravalho, Gillespie and the rest of their peers deserve the time to grow into their roles.
Fans of passionate theater kids dealing with serious subjects or outsiders taking over a school theater department should give “Rise” a chance. Pilots of shows that later hit their stride often feel clunky because so much backstory has to be introduced in one episode. While the storylines of this pilot already feel tired, the cast has great promise, and the show will hopefully rise to the heights NBC is aiming for.