Before Rise could air its season finale this week, NBC dropped the bad news hammer: The show was cancelled after its one (and now only) 10-episode season. It’s sad news for the sometimes frustrating, sometimes inspiring, always earnest high school musical drama. But it’s even sadder news for the musical genre on television, which is now represented almost exclusively by the CW musical comedy Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, set to conclude after its fourth season next year.
In 2013, when Broadway drama Smash was about to air its series finale, then-Vulture writer Margaret Lyons wrote a piece arguing that, while Smash did indeed fail, another musical show about similar themes could succeed.
“For scripted one-hour shows right now, you can pretty much break everything into Cops/Lawyers/Murderers, Supernatural/Paranormal, and Other. I like a cop show, I like a vampire show but I am so much more curious about the Other category,” she wrote. “Why are all other jobs relegated to sitcoms and reality shows? Give me a show about a math teacher. Or a minister. A project manager. A chef. A nanny. An MTA employee. A florist. An interpreter. Or a stage performer.”
It’s a short piece, practically a blog post, but it’s stuck with me for five years since, largely because it hits on my major frustration with how musical narrative TV is received by mass audiences. It’s either automatically deemed niche, as Rise and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend were, or criticized harshly for its every misstep, as Smash and Glee were. You won’t catch me arguing that either of the latter was a great TV show, but certain episodes of Smash were more electrifying than anything you’d find on CBS’ procedural-heavy programming slate.
Rise is similar to Smash in that way. All in all, I don’t know if I’d call it a good show. It had too many inconsistencies, too much focus on Lou (Josh Radnor), and too little interest in the actual business of staging a high school musical theatre production. But there were flashes of brilliance when Rise absolutely knew what it was doing. The characterization of Simon (Ted Sutherland). The stories about and including Michael (Ellie Desautels). Gwen’s (Amy Forsyth) rendition of “The Song of Purple Summer.” What it lacked in consistency, it made up in heart.
This season now series finale had many of the same issues as the rest of Rise’s run. As predicted, the show did indeed go on despite Stanton High’s attempts to censor Lou and his students’ production of Spring Awakening. We got some great musical numbers, some clunky, overly earnest dialogue, and a cliffhanger that will never be solved. The production is a hit, but nevertheless, Stanton High’s theatre department will be shut down.
In a way, that’s poetic reflection: A musical show can bring something special and unique to broadcast TV, and it’ll still get shut down. Rise didn’t get an inch more rope than Stanton High’s theatre department did.
I’ll miss Rise. I’ll miss its heart, its strong ensemble of young performers, and its uniqueness in a broadcast lineup that is looking increasingly and alarmingly unfriendly to LGBTQ+ audiences. It may not have been the perfect show, but it’s the kind of show that deserves a home on television.