When you watch NBC’s new musical drama Rise, it’s impossible not to feel like you’re seeing a mashup of shows gone by. There’s a shocking number of shared premiere beats between the new high school show and fellow teen song-and-dance series Glee. But, the Pennsylvania-set newbie also feels like soul-twin to fellow emotionally-charged NBC drama Friday Night Lights. It’s no surprise both Rise and the much-venerated FNL both hail from Emmy-winner Jason Katims, who also gave us family melodrama Parenthood.
Yet, Rise has something none of those series have, which are two teenage leads of colour in Stanton High students Lilette Suarez (multi-ethnic Hawaiian actress Auli'i Cravalho) and Robbie Thorne (Damon J. Gillespie). And, not only does the high school show turn the spotlight over to a pair of teens of colour, it also puts them in a working class corner of America. When was the last time you saw a kid with the last name Suarez or a halo of coily natural hair stumble their way through adolescence in a steel town on your TV? Exactly. That is what makes Rise so special.
In the same way Shonda Rhimes used shows like Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal to matter-of-factly show give us diverse worlds that simply reflect reality — it’s not like anyone said it was wild that white Meredith Grey (Ellen Pompeo), Asian Cristina Yang (Chandra Wilson), and Black Miranda Bailey (Chandra Wilson) were ambitious Seattle doctors — Rise tries to make the same case for rural Pennsylvania. Lilette simply is someone who lives in this shrinking, MAGA-touting town with her mother, Vanessa Suarez (Shirley Rumierk). Considering how little movement Stanton seems to experience, it looks like her mom has always been there. Vanessa certainly sounds weary of the tiny burg in the way that only someone trapped there for decades can be when she complains about her fellow residents.
“That is what happens in this town. People make up lies just to keep from dying of boredom,” Vanessa angrily tells her daughter. “It’s why we’re going to get out of here one day.”
Similarly, Robbie, who is shown to have two Black parents, is just another one of the football players on the legitimately diverse Stanton High team, as scenes from pre-game pep rallies and practices prove. Future episodes show Robbie practicing one-on-one with a Black teammate. It’s a subtle reminder white stories aren’t the only ones that grow from the steel towns Donald Trump is so fond of yelling about on Twitter. Instead, people of colour have roots there as much as they do in the low-income neighbourhoods, Texas football towns, or alienating suburbs most television teens with a certain level of melanin are usually relegated to. People of colour grow up everywhere.
In this political climate, where working class districts are credited with making a president, and ABC brought Roseanne back from the dead for her blue-collar appeal, such a statement is more important than ever.
Both of the actors who bring these teens to life agree. “It speaks upon America today,” Moana star Auli'i Cravalho, who portrays Lilette, told Refinery29 during a New York City interview. “For me, as a 17-year-old coming from high school myself, I know that these issues and these characters are people I see in my everyday life. To have them on screen [and] to shine a beautiful light on them is spectacular.”
Damon J. Gillespie, who brings athlete and secret musical talent Robbie to life, only added to his costar's sentiment. “It’s a story that needs to be told,” the actor continued. “I think sometimes we tell stories that are popular in the media, but sometimes we don’t address the other side of these forgotten stories. It’s the perfect time to do that.”
While Lilette and Robbie’s “forgotten stories” might be rare for television, Rise goes to great pains to prove they’re also universally recognisable. “I don’t think you have to live in a steel town in Pennsylvania to relate to the show,” co-adult lead and How I Met Your Mother alum Josh Radnor explained. “Everyone goes through a painful adolescence where you don’t know who you are or who you should be, and you’re trying to get cues and clues from everywhere.”
Thankfully, it sounds like watching this inclusive group of kids grow up might be able to point us in the right direction. “This is a story not about it going wrong, but about it kind of going right,” Radnor added. “In this moment where it feels like a lot of stuff is off the rails, people are kind of questioning [everything, and] truth is up for grabs, it’s really nice to check in with a story about good people working at getting better.”
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