If you’ve seen a single trailer for NBC’s upcoming Auli'i Cravalho vehicle Rise, it seems pretty evident the network wants you to believe the upcoming high school-set drama is the soul sibling of ratings hit This Is Us, only with more teenagers singing. There’s the same optimistic, vague title, the same extreme, wet-eyed family drama in a Pennsylvania town, and there’s another inoffensively handsome brunette man with at least one iconic TV role under his belt leading the proceedings. Rise will even take This Is Us’ time slot next week after its debut on Tuesday, March 13. Unsurprisingly, the music number-filled series will premiere following Us’ season 2 finale.
Yet, Rise, isn’t exactly This Is Us. Rather than serving as heartbreaking family melodrama, it's a high school regular drama about an English teacher named Lou Mazzuchelli (HIMYM's Josh Radnor) who decides to work through his own personal issues by taking over his high school’s theater program. The students who join the program, like talented waitress Lilette Suarez (Moana star Cravalho), conflicted athlete Robbie Thorne (Damon J. Gillespie), and devout Catholic Simon Saunders (Ted Sutherland), who is signaled to be figuring out his own sexuality, are a rainbow coalition of teens also working through personal issues by way of Spring Awakening. That's why Rise, with its less-than-qualified teacher randomly taking over a high school performance program — and said teacher coercing a secretly talented football player into joining his musical — shouldn't be compared to This Is Us.
Instead, Rise, is much closer to Glee, but for the age of Donald Trump.
While Glee is very much a Ryan Murphy-Brad Falchuk production, it’s equally as much a product of its time. It arrived in May 2009, more than a year after Barack Obama’s “Hope” posters ushered in a national mood of, well, hope, and a few months after the forty-fourth president’s inauguration. By the time Glee premiered, President Obama had already signed a stimulus package that would finally stabilize the housing crisis plaguing America and announced plans to withdraw most U.S. troops from Iraq by 2010. When Glee came jazz-handing onto the scene, it felt like someone had officially grasped the wheel on America’s metaphorical car and steered it away from a cliff that was also on fire. That meant television like the Lea Michele-led musical dramedy had the freedom to be quippy, light, and obsessed with the plights and pitchiness of bunch of high school outcasts.
Besides the natural progressiveness of any Murphy-Falchuk collaboration, brass tax politics as a whole was avoidable.
Rise, which bows just a little over a year after Trump took the White House, is not that lucky. All pop culture now feels like a rebuke or co-sign of the president’s typically harmful politics, so, the new NBC show deals with that reality head on, despite the fact it’s a simple high school show at heart.
Set in the rural town of Stanton, Pennsylvania, Rise leads with its blue collar foot first, giving us an in-depth look at the steel towns that usually get little media attention and even fewer nods from mainstream television. Before viewers ever hear Lou speak, they glimpse shots of abandoned iron works factories, hard hats with the phrase “MAGA” scrawled across them in red paint, and bare coastline. Everything has the atmosphere of twilight, even when it’s 8 o’clock in the morning.
The show doesn’t stop dealing with Stanton’s financial woes after the opening montage. The football coach isn’t panicked over having to share his star player with the theater program because he hates the arts — no, he’s terrified of losing games and subsequently losing his job. You know, the job he uses to keep a roof over his wife and daughter in a town where having a steady paycheck looks like a rarity. Female lead Lilette and her mother Vanessa Suarez (Shirley Rumierk) are desperate for every single waitressing shift they can get to make ends meet. In an early episode, Lou details how the loss of the local steel plant led to higher unemployment, which tripled the high school dropout rate and created a staggering heroin crisis. While Rise's main characters live in relative, near-confusing comfort, it feels like the Pennsylvania sky could fall at any moment, directly onto the cast.
Although Rise often works as a thoughtful exploration of life in Donald Trump’s America, it can also feel like an uncomfortable microcosm of the 2016 election. While we’re supposed to be rooting for Lou to succeed, he instead seems increasingly infuriating. The series opens when Lou, with his complete lack of drama experience, decides he is the the right man to take over the theater department (the original director has vanished for a little-explained reason). This would almost be endearing, if there were no one to fill the vacant position… but there is: Tracey Wolfe (national treasure Rosie Perez), who has been with the program for over a decade. The school’s principal still hands Lou the job because Tracey has been labeled “a pain in the ass” since she was a Stanton High student years ago.
Yes, a talented, experienced, “difficult” woman was passed over for a job because an amateurish white guy woke up one day and decided he wanted to switch career paths. As someone who has watched Rise’s first few episodes, let’s just say no one is going to appreciate Tracey’s expertise or intelligence any time soon. Has anyone heard of a story like this before?
So, if you've missed seeing lovable high schoolers deal with their mounting teen angst and economic constraints through song, Rise will be the show for you. But, if you're sick and tired of seeing kick-ass women get passed over for their less effectual male counterparts, might I suggest hanging out with some Good Girls instead?
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