You've already seen Rise.
Well, you haven't seen NBC's new drama itself (Tuesday, 10 ET/PT, ★★ out of four) but you've seen parts of it. Created by Friday Night Lights and Parenthood creator Jason Katims, the series has FNL in its DNA, with a little bit of Glee and High School Musical mixed in. But rather than spinning the high-school drama — or even the high-school musical drama — forward, Rise feels like a rehash, a collection of stories we've already seen, presented with a slightly darker palette.
Adapted from Michael Sokolove's book Drama High, Rise follows Lou Mazzuchelli (How I Met Your Mother's Josh Radnor), a down-and-out English teacher who wants to take over the theater department to add some meaning to his life. His promotion comes at the expense of the far more qualified Tracey Wolfe (Rosie Perez), sidelining her because she's a "pain" and the principal doesn't like her.
Lou's big vision for the drama department is to swap a production of Grease for Spring Awakening, a Tony-winning musical about teenagers coming to terms with their sexuality that's laced with profanity. Some folks are, well, less than enthused about the musical in the run-down Pennsylvania steel town in which the series is set, but Lou and Tracey assemble a ragtag cast of student actors who are instantly devoted to it (one of the stranger aspects of the messy first episode).
The kids are far more appealing than the adult characters in the series, and it flows much more smoothly when it focuses on the younger generation. The teens include football quarterback Robbie (Damon J. Gillespie), outsider Lilette (Auli'i Cravalho, the voice of Moana) and drama club regulars Gwen (Amy Forsyth) and Simon (Ted Sutherland), whom Lou demotes to supporting roles, mostly because he can.
Radnor can be an appealing guy, but Lou feels like a combination of the worst aspects of his HIMYM character, Ted Mosby, in a more grating package. Lou is just too mean to be a hero, and he continually degrades the women in his life, especially Tracey and Gwen: He thinks they're too big, too noticeable, too loud. It's hard to buy that this guy inspires kids to connect with art.
The conflict between art and sport is one of the oldest tropes in high-school pop culture, and yet here we have another football player who struggles to both be in the school musical and make the big game. Lou manipulates Robbie into auditioning and then butts heads with the administration and football coach over the teen's time commitments. The storyline is tired and the least compelling aspect of Rise: It's 2018; kids can be more than one thing.
The other plots also feel tired: The diva who has to grapple with being relegated to a supporting role. The theater boy who's struggling with his sexuality. Religious parents arguing against what they see as inappropriate art.
There are glimmers of a better show, epitomized by a young transgender boy (played by non-binary actor Ellie Desautels) finding his place in the drama club or Lou's son Gordy (Casey Johnson), who struggles with alcoholism, or maybe just Lou and his wife's (Marley Shelton) projected insecurities. The more you watch, the more the series irons out some of its kinks, but overall Rise takes too few risks. Its major driving force is a man who wants to put on a subversive and provocative musical to challenge people, and yet it's hard to ignore that the broadcast TV series censors some of the language in its songs.
The theater is full of boundless possibilities. If only our stories about it embraced them.