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‘Rise’ Series Premiere Recap: Do You Wanna Be a ‘Smash’?

I don’t know if you all will like Rise. But I love it.

I’ve long since stopped trusting myself when it comes to musical TV shows. My little gay heart welcomes them with open arms until they either drive me away (Glee) or die a slow, painful death (Smash). But even years after they’ve gone, I still find myself listening to the “Rumour Has It/Someone Like You” mashup, or Ivy Lynn’s version of “Don’t Forget Me.” They burrow their way into my life, and I never let go.

This will inevitably be the case with Rise, whether it runs for one season or 10. I’ve seen the whole first season, and I have fully given myself over to it. It is a spectacular, emotional, absurd, temperamental, heightened, messy, beautiful show. And every single one of those adjectives applies to the pilot episode, which debuted Tuesday night on NBC.

Friday Night Lights creator Jason Katims has applied the same small-town high school aesthetic of that show, and blended it with the heart-first tone he used so effectively on Parenthood. The result feels like a Glee for the This Is Us age: painfully earnest, and much subtler musically, but nonetheless pretty irresistible to me, at least. But again, I’m the guy who still rewatches episodes of Smash sometimes for fun. This is my new Smash, for better or worse.

Lou Mazzuchelli (Josh Radnor) hates what has become of Stanton, Pennsylvania. The withering of the steel industry has left his town a husk, and the doom-and-gloom has infected the school at which he teaches. He wants to do something to help reinvigorate spirits: He wants to take over the school’s theatre department.

Much like Mr. Schuester on Glee, Lou faces a stubborn administration and an apathetic student body. He also faces the wrath of the previous head of the program, Tracey Wolfe (Rosie Perez), who is furious that her job has been taken by a less qualified white man. Moreover, she’s expected to assist him, which she does only out of love for the students in the program. They make an unlikely pair and frustrate each other with their diametrically opposed ideas of what student theatre should be.

See, Lou’s a rebel. He wants to take the two students who play the leads in everything Simon (Ted Sutherland) and Gwen (Amy Forsyth) and make them supporting characters. Meanwhile, he wants to pluck out two fresh faces, Lillette (Auli’i Cravalho) and Robbie (Damon J. Gillespie), and cast them as the leads. He also wants the production to be the sexually tinged Spring Awakening. Tracey hates just about all of this, but goes along to get along.

There are also some plots involving Lou’s family, Simon’s sexuality, Robbie’s football team, and more, but it’s just too much to boil down in this recap. Honestly, most of the plot is rushed through, giving you only moments to wrap your head around one development before Rise rushes to the next. It’s a very pilot-y problem: You have to get to the meat of the story to hook the audience, but there’s a lot of ground to cover until then. It’s a rushed, frantic episode of television, and really not a great representation of what Rise is moving forward. But it still has its pleasures.

So instead of summarizing what happens, we’ll focus on the final moments, when Tracey and the students commit their own act of rebellion. Lou went too hard, too fast, and the school tossed his plans out. Instead of the risky Spring Awakening, the program will do The Pirates of Penzance, with Tracey helming. He gives a painfully earnest monologue about how things will go on without him, and how much he believes in the kids.

And then Tracey and the kids burn all the Pirates of Penzance props.

That’s the big plan: They commit massive property damage to get Lou and Spring Awakening back. All while singing “I Believe,” the Act 1 finale of Spring Awakening.

How you reacted to this scene foretells how you’ll feel about Rise. It’s a much better distillation than the rest of the episode is: It’s absurd, logically messy, and arguably way too emotional. If you didn’t buy it, Rise is probably not for you.

If you’re like me, on the other hand, and you cried through the entire thing despite knowing how silly it was? If you immediately wanted to press play on the next episode because you were so damn rapt? If you know you had just welcomed this weird and wonderful series into your heart immediately, come hell or high water? Welcome, friend. I’m excited to take this journey with you.

I want to take a moment to address the straightwashing controversy about this show that erupted back in January. When it first broke, I had seen the first five episodes of Rise, and thus knew it featured both gay and trans student characters. So I was surprised to hear that Lou’s sexuality had been changed from the gay, real-life inspiration, particularly because it was reported that Katims did so to better connect with the character.

Of course, it turned out that wasn’t really the case, as Katims’ (admittedly awkwardly phrased) quote from a press Q had been misreported repeatedly. Katims wanted to tell a new story, not just rehash the exact details of the real-life Lou’s story. Would it be interesting to have Lou be gay in Rise? Maybe! But that’s not what this show is.

Representation matters that’s hardly a novel thing to say at this point and this show does a solid job on that front. There are multiple LGBTQ characters, multiple non-white leads, and there’s a good-faith effort to give everyone time in the spotlight. (Contrast that to something like The Greatest Showman, which is only interested in people’s differences as long as they’re not the focus of the story.)

My hope is that NBC will continue to give LGBTQ characters of all kinds spots on their shows, as they have in series like Champions, Will & Grace, and, yes, Rise. But I can’t fault them too hard for what happened here. If you feel strongly about it, and you don’t want to watch Rise as a result, I understand and appreciate your position, and respect your decision. I will be watching, writing, and weeping, keeping it in my heart until the very end and even beyond.

The next episode of Rise will air Tuesday, March 21, at 10 p.m. on NBC.


 

Kevin O'KeeffeKevin O'Keeffe

Kevin O'Keeffe is a writer and 'RuPaul's Drag Race' herstorian. He covers film and TV for INTO, and writes the movie review column "But How Gay Is It?" every Friday.

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