Rise (S01E01) "Pilot"

The first episode of Rise *mostly* lived up to it’s promise.  For a show that wants to transform the mundane into the spectacular, to plumb the depths of a human soul and bring it to light, it was a good beginning. It takes it’s task seriously, just hopefully not so much so that it becomes falsely earnest. The music is good and thankfully, unlike Glee (the comparison automatic) it allows it’s students to sing with a singular goal – producing Spring Awakening for the school theatre program. No more random rifs and covers.

When teacher Lou Mazzuchelli (Josh Radnor) decides to take over the theatre department in order to reach his kids and make a difference in their lives, we are reminded again how important the arts are to our lives. Too often the art programs in public schools fall by the wayside, coming behind sports and traditional academics in importance. As a society I think we’ve forgotten the transformative power of the arts, the ability for them to make life deeper and more meaningful. Lou knows that these kids need an outlet – and it doesn’t matter that he only has $2000 as opposed to the $40,000 the school spent on new turf for football (rage!) – as an acting troupe these kids can come together and be something brilliant.

The kids of Rise, led by Moana herself, Auli’i Cravalho as Lillete Suarez and Damon Gillespie as Robbie Thorne, are the best part of this show. Their stories are what we need to see on screen. Lou tells the kids that as artists their duty is to reflect the world around us, and that’s exactly what we’re getting. From a closeted gay teen (Ted Sutherland) to a transgender boy (Ellie Desautels – a gender neutral actor) we’re going to see issues addressed that need to be on screen. Hopefully will continue to be done with grace, and understanding. One of my favorite moments of the night was when Mr. Mazzuchelli was calling out names – he paused where Michael (Ellie Desautels) had written down both his names, asking what he’d prefer to be called. When Michael confirmed that he wanted to be Michael – to be recognized as male, Mazzuchelli smiled, nodded and said, “beautiful.” That’s enough.

One issue, this story is based off a real live account of Lou Volpe as told in the book “Drama High”. In real life Volpe is a gay man, and was struggling with his sexuality as he was guiding these teens. In the show Mazzuchelli is a straight family man with 3 children – “straight-washing” is a real issue and I think an unfortunate choice for a show that wants to deal with issues of gender and sexuality – maybe not the best start.

There is a lot of potential here – and I’m excited to see Spring Awakening performed on tv, it’s a show that challenges and touches the heart and is possibly exactly what America needs right now.

Rise next airs March 20th on NBC.

photo credit @nbcrise