March 14, 2018

SHOWBUZZDAILY Series Premiere Review: “Rise”


RISE:  Tuesday 9PM on NBC – In the Queue

RISE creator Jason Katims practically demands that viewers compare his new series with his classic Friday Night Lights.  The song that accompanies the opening scene sounds like it came off the Lights soundtrack, director Mike Cahill (an indie filmmaker whose best-known works are Another Earth and I Origins, his collaborations with Brit Marling) shoots with the desaturated colors and roaming handheld camera familiar to Lights fans, and the premise puts us back in high school, with a protagonist who’s a sort of coach.

Katims’ work, notably his version of Parenthood, sometimes needs time to get itself in order, so perhaps Rise will, you know, make like its title as the season continues.  But in the early going, comparisons aren’t to the new show’s advantage.  Katims’ aim with Rise seems to be combining the grittiness of Friday Night Lights (which, like Rise, was inspired by a nonfiction book) with the inspirational quality and general plotline of Glee.  This time, the authority figure is Lou Mazzuchelli (Josh Radnor), and instead of the football team, his charges are the students of the drama department, with whom he’s determined to create a production of Broadway’s Spring Awakening.  (Rise‘s theatrical bona fides are supplied by another producer, Hamilton‘s Jeffrey Seller, and those searching for easter eggs might note that the original Broadway production of Spring Awakening made a star of Glee‘s Lea Michele.)  As in Glee, although with a much more serious tone, Lou gathers together various campus misfits, and just like Mr Schue, he lures the school football star, Robbie (Damon J. Gillespie), to the show.  In a similarly Glee-like way, Lou has to cope with an antagonistic school principal and football coach, who constantly threaten to fire him and revoke his funding.

Katims is an enormously talented series creator and showrunner, but he’s trying to mix together barbecue and caramel here.  Friday Night Lights was a brilliantly nuanced portrait of small town American lives, one that stumbled when it attempted melodrama (especially in its best-forgotten Season 2).  Glee‘s strengths were its energy and audaciousness, while its ham-handed plotting was often cringe-worthy.  When the Rise pilot reaches its supposedly triumphant conclusion, with the cast and Lou’s assistant director Tracey (a subdued Rosie Perez) winning Lou’s job back by setting fire to the costumes and props of the administration’s preferred Pirates of Penzance, it feels like Katims is reaching for a broad note that’s beyond his range.

Radnor is oddly cast as Lou.  He’s certainly believable as a pig-headed scold with theatrical affectations–that’s just a variation of his character from How I Met Your Mother.  But Lou is supposed to be a modest 17-year veteran English teacher largely content with his wife (Marley Shelton, so far no Mrs. Coach) and kids, and Radnor doesn’t fit that description at all.  On the other hand, Katims’ skill at casting young actors continues to be evident, with this group including Moana vocal star Auli’i Cavalho as Spring Awakening‘s female lead Lillette, a waitress’s daughter from the wrong side of the tracks, Amy Forsyth as the girl Lillette beat out for the part (and whose father is having an affair with Lillette’s mom), and Ted Sutherland as Simon, whose Christian family disapproves of his gay role in the musical.  All of them have great voices and dramatic chops.

There’s plenty of talent on display in Rise, and a theme that has the potential to be both thrilling and relevant.  The attempt to make its pieces fit together, though, may be harder even than producing a high school musical that’s ready for the Great White Way.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."