It’s a common critical refrain: Most fiction about the creation of a great and powerful work of art will inevitably fall short of convincing its audience that said work of art is great and powerful. It’s hard enough to craft one layer of compelling stories and characters; to then write original pop songs, stand-up comedy, or poetry in the voices of those characters, and then plausibly present their rapturous reception, is a labor of Herculean proportion. To repeat another commonly held belief: 30 Rock succeeded in depicting the lives of comedy writers where Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip did not in part because 30 Rock’s show-within-a-show was a floundering enterprise that produced sketches about overloaded fart engines, whereas Studio 60 saw a tedious Gilbert And Sullivan parody as a way to save face following an on-air meltdown.
Rise, the new drama about high-school theater from Jason Katims, has a leg up in this regard. The kids channeling their adolescent frustrations into song and dance under the guidance of Lou Mazzuchelli (Josh Radnor) and Tracy Wolfe (Rosie Perez) are doing so within the framework of Spring Awakening, winner of the Tony for Best Musical in 2007. The book, music, and lyrics come readymade, prepackaged for stirring cast renditions of “Mama Who Bore Me” and “Bitch Of Living,” which form their own sorts of refrains over the course of Rise’s first season. If anything, Spring Awakening might have provided Katims and his team with too much inspiration, considering how closely the first season hews to the musical’s themes of self-discovery, repression, rebellion, and consequence. Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik are the show’s guiding star, along with Katims’ two most-beloved series, whose multi-generational melodrama and documentary-style camerawork are replicated here. You might show up to Rise eager for some backstage intrigue, and be surprised when a Friday Night Lights or Parenthood episode breaks out.
Inspired by Michael Sokolove’s breezy nonfiction volume Drama High, Rise begins with flailing English teacher Lou commandeering the theater program at Stanton High School, a dreary institution in a Pennsylvanian town still reeling from the closure of the local steel mill. After barging in on Tracy and her troupe of student actors as they rehearse the finale of Grease, Lou makes his grand plans known: Out with Danny and Sandy, in with Melchior and Wendla, a move intended to inspire the kids and guaranteed to ruffle the feathers of the administration. In true Katims fashion, Lou and Tracy are just two characters in a wide array of personalities: Moana star Auli’i Cravalho gets the juiciest part in Spring Awakening and a comparatively hollow role as Rise’s Lilette, who struggles with self-confidence and rumors about a home-wrecking mom; in a move straight out of the Glee pilot, her Melchior presents himself in the form of Stanton High quarterback Robbie Thorne (Damon J. Gillespie), a star athlete with an ailing mother and killer pipes. Everybody’s family life is pretty dire: Gwen (Amy Forsyth) is the daughter of a philandering football coach, Simon (Ted Sutherland) lives under the thumb of a dad who’s practically campaigning for a leadership role in the Republic of Gilead, and Masshous (Rarmian Newton) is sleeping in the control booth. This might follow the examples of Spring Awakening, Drama High, and Friday Night Lights, but the misery really stacks up in the early episodes.
Lou will not be the light that cuts through all that darkness. A curious variation on the inspirational-teacher type, his characterization is rounded out by an idealism and a perfectionism that, rather than shed him in the light of the uncompromising maverick, just make the Spring Awakening director look like a prick. He steals a job Tracy’s been working her way toward for years, breaks promises to his wife and kids, and makes unreasonable demands on the time of his cast and crew. Rise positions itself as a testament to the transformative power of the arts in schools, but Lou’s lack of perspective provides an awkward counterbalance to that argument. When other characters tell him to get over himself, it’s almost difficult to disagree with them. He’s Glee’s Will Schuester, if Glee ever allowed itself to show how much of a schmuck Will could be.
The casting does not help. Radnor would prefer if you stop thinking about him as Ted Mosby, but the specter of that character haunts Rise up to and following the scene in which Lou tells his son a story about meeting the kid’s mother. As he proved time and time again on How I Met Your Mother, Radnor’s strongest modes as an actor are in conviction and condescension, and he employs both here. Only this time, it’s not for comedic effect.
To Rise’s credit, the show seems to recognize these traits in its protagonist’s characterization and performance, and steers into the skid partway through the season. The tension between Lou and Tracy ratchets up, prompting a number of monologues that have “For your consideration: Rosie Perez” stamped all over them. As opening night approaches, one entertaining hour is devoted to futile attempts to bowdlerize Spring Awakening. (“Totally Fucked” goes through some totally fucked permutations.) Eventually there’s enough background that some of the kids can step forward from the chorus, like the arc about Michael (Ellie Desautels) and how his coming out as transgender has impacted his friendship with Sasha (Erin Kommor). Rise is both a production wobbling toward sure footing, and a depiction thereof.
Which leads to its unique variation on the hurdles that have faced Studio 60, Vinyl, I’m Dying Up Here, and any number of TV productions about creative pursuits: What’s the best way to convey the impact of great art? There’s a lot of talk about how participating in Spring Awakening rounds out the kids’ educations, and there’s plenty of evidence, scientific and anecdotal, to back that up. But that positive impact can get lost amid Rise’s personal dramas and Lou’s contradictory nature; far more effective is Tracy’s impassioned speech before the school board, asking why the district’s financial priorities lie with an athletics program that destroys students’ minds and bodies, and not a theater production that would enrich their lives. But whenever Rise shifts focus to one of Robbie’s big games, it becomes painfully apparent how effortlessly the on-field action of Friday Night Lights stirred the emotions Rise struggles to find. It’s not until Spring Awakening is on its feet in the season finale that the show realizes its full tear-jerking potential. And by then, it’s too likely that too few viewers will be around to save this scrappy little theater program.