“Rise” is inspired, but not based on, Michael Sokolove’s book “Drama High: The Incredible True Story of a Brilliant Teacher, a Struggling Town, and the Magic of Theater.” That’s where some of the misunderstanding has arisen — this is not an adaptation of “Drama High.”
On “Rise,” Josh Radnor will play a straight teacher, whereas the book’s inspiration, Lou Volpe, is gay; that choice prompted some criticism ahead of the show’s premiere in March. “The misinterpretation by some of what we’ve done with this show goes against what we fundamentally believe and who we are as individuals,” executive producers Jason Katims, Jeffrey Seller (“Hamilton”) and Flody Suarez wrote in a statement to EW.
“We are firmly committed to LGBTQ inclusion, and most of all, are excited for the community to see ‘Rise,’ which we believe portrays positive depictions of LGBTQ characters and stories on broadcast television with honesty and sensitivity. To that end, we worked with GLAAD on the show’s LGBTQ storylines to ensure they are told with respect and authenticity.”
That includes specifically two teen characters: Michael, a transgender teen who is transitioning, and Simon, a young man in a religious family slowly awakening to his own sexuality. The teens are exploring their own identities as they prep a high school performance of “Spring Awakening,” which deals with those topics as well.
Last week, at the Television Critics Association press tour, here’s how Katims addressed the decision not to follow the letter of the book:
“I think that the source material that you’re talking about, ‘Drama High’ and that teacher, Lou Volpe, was such an inspiration to me and to everybody doing the show. To see somebody who spent 44 years dedicated to this program was amazing. And I really hope that — and believe that — we carry a lot of his spirit into the show.
“But in terms of the adaptation itself and why we made that decision, it’s like as you said, it’s very much we took that as an inspiration, and then I really felt like I needed to make it, you know, kind of my own story. And I definitely didn’t want to shy away from issues of sexuality and gender, but was inspired to tell the story of Michael, this transgender character, and Simon, who’s dealing with his emerging sexuality and growing up in a very sort of conservative religious family.
“And those stories felt like they were sort of resonant — resonated with me kind of as a storyteller, and I wanted to kind of lean into that. And then really with Lou’s family life and Lou’s family itself, there’s a lot of reimagination, not only in terms of whether he was gay or straight, but in terms of that family structure. Like, for example, you see in the pilot there’s a storyline with his son, Gordy, who we suggest has a drinking problem.
“As you go on and you watch the next several episodes, even in episode 2, that turns into a very a major story line and becomes, I think, a very powerful part of our storytelling. So, you know, I really wanted — I felt like it was important to me to honor what the source material was, but then to also kind of make it my own so that we would all be able to sort of lean in and do the work that we need to do as actors and writers.”
“Rise” will be set in a fictional town, none of whose inhabitants are based on real people. Marley Shelton, Auli’i Cravalho, Rosie Perez co-star in the show, which is set to premiere on NBC on March 13.