‘Rise’ Review: Josh Radnor’s Overwrought Theatre Drama Is a Frustrating Reversal of ‘Friday Night Lights’

Dillon High School from the theatre club's perspective, "Rise" trades in shoulder pads for "Spring Awakening" but results in a contrived melodrama.
RISE -- "Most of All to Dream" Episode 102 -- Pictured: Josh Radnor as Lou Mazzuchelli -- (Photo by: Virginia Sherwood/NBC)
Virginia Sherwood/NBC

Earnestness, sincerity, and optimism are all precious commodities in a culture overrun with snark, but the new drama series “Rise” reaches for profundity and comes up empty too many times to merit an A for effort (or a B, or, well, you’ll see). Created by “Friday Night Lights” and “Parenthood” head Jason Katims (which makes the blunt character-building all the more jarring), NBC’s follow-up (and potential successor) to “This Is Us” feels equally manipulative as it constantly mines for our tears. Through five episodes, it’s stuck repeating storylines better explored in Katims’ past series with characters who wouldn’t make the Top 10 list of either previous ensemble.

Led by Josh Radnor’s English teacher turned theater director Lou Mazzuchelli, “Rise” tracks the reinvention of a high school drama department through the eyes of its faculty and students. Lou gets the ball rolling when he pitches himself for the vacant post, inadvertently stepping on the toes of Tracy (Rosie Perez), a long-term assistant director in the theatre.

Tracy responds to Lou’s passion but questions his methods, but she does seem like a better fit for the post than this random schmo who tells his wife, “I need this. I need something” — all while his son is turning into an alcoholic. It’s unclear exactly how Lou’s family life is doing: At times, they seem like a mess, with Gail (Marley Shelton) hanging on by a thread thanks to the desperate whims of her husband. Other times, everything is fine, and the two look like blissful lovebirds. These shifts are probably meant to illustrate a typical, complicated marriage, but because there’s no base, no clear understanding between the couple, the Mazzuchelli house comes across as the opposite: It feels inauthentic.

RISE -- "Most of All to Dream" Episode 102 -- Pictured: (l-r) Auli'i Cravalho as Lilette Suarez, Damon J. Gillespie as Robbie Thorne -- (Photo by: Virginia Sherwood/NBC)

The kids are equally underdeveloped, checking off boxes and only breaking the mold when the story demands it. There’s a theatre veteran who’s struggling to come out, but finds motivation from the play (and, very uncomfortably, from Leo). There’s the perennial star of the show who’s asked to accept a backseat and thus struggles to share the spotlight. There’s also a female-to-male transgender student, but he literally just pops in to define other characters as either accepting, good people or transphobic bad people.

But the most important cog in the series’ engine is also the most difficult to believe: Robbie (Damon J. Gillespie). He’s the Jason Street of his high school — QB1 — whom the entire school loves enough to exuberantly cheer for his awkward, exposition-heavy rapping during a pep rally. Of course, Leo sees this and thinks, “Hey, that kid has charisma. I bet he’d love to be in my play.” And what do you know, Robbie can rap and sing, and he wants to act and play football. He’s a convenient combination of two stereotypes (the football stud and theatre star) and it feels that way.

Splitting time between the two extracurriculars sparks a controversy between Leo and Coach Strickland (Doug Tippett). They both want the kid to further their own dreams, but because Leo’s semi-selfish cause is more important than football, we’re meant to look past his morally questionable motivations and see this as a good thing for Robbie. That it probably is — kids should, after all, explore all their interests — feels secondary, even though Leo explicitly says as much. He’s just not a very trustworthy person, based on why the teacher got into theatre in the first place: Again, because he needs something to do.

RISE -- "Most of All to Dream" Episode 102 -- Pictured: (l-r) Joe Tippett as Coach Doug Strickland, Josh Radnor as Lou Mazzuchelli -- (Photo by: Peter Kramer/NBC)

That results in a lot of heartfelt speeches about the arts, family, and being yourself — all great causes in need of attention and support. All together, there’s so much good in the series it’s difficult to be dismissive of what it’s trying to do, but “Rise” is working too hard to churn up melodrama. Whenever Leo talks about theatre being an opportunity to explore all life has to offer, it’s a reminder the show forgot humor and fun are a big part of enjoying day-to-day joys.

There’s a scene in Episode 4 where Leo is seen playing football in the street with his family. It’s meant to be a light, enlivening moment where his angry son Gordy (Casey W. Johnson) acquiesces and joins in on the bonding. But it’s that kind of football you only see on TV: They kind of play keep away instead of catch and then suddenly Leo is “tackling” Gail with a hug. It’s such a contrived moment, you can’t even believe Gordy agreed to play. “Rise” doesn’t know how to have fun, and that was a big part of what made shows like “Parenthood” and “Friday Night Lights” inspiring. They were authentic, nuanced, character-driven family dramas, but there are natural moments of levity and excitement.

“Rise” is using a lot of the same subjects, ideas, and arcs, but it rushes through them all. Its heart is in the right place, and the talent here (including a strong group of young actors) may find their groove later on. Until then, it’s time for a break from the tears. You have to earn those.

Grade: C-

“Rise” premieres Tuesday, March 13 at 10 p.m. ET on NBC.

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