I’ve never seen Friday Night Lights, the show everyone is comparing Rise to, but I’m assuming it’s nowhere near as gloomy and depressing as this.
Just a couple of years after his role on the disappointing How I Met Your Mother, Josh Radnor stars as Lou, a high school English teacher who takes over the theatre department and decides to reinvent the program at Stanton High. Radnor seems like a perfect fit, but his chemistry with the rest of the cast leaves a lot to be desired. Rise, which is inspired by a true story, relies heavily on Lou’s day-to-day interactions with the students, the football coach (painted as a mustache-twirling villain), and the former director of the drama club. Played to near perfection by Rosie Perez, Tracey is undoubtedly the best part of this pilot as her demotion to assistant director after Lou takes over is the most relatable aspect of this otherwise flawed hour.
Tonally, the show is quite gloomy and dispirited, a tad too much for its own good. While there’s nothing wrong with a serious drama every now and then, Rise would have benefitted from having a more lighthearted or uplifting tone. Also, the pale stylistic choice is off-putting at times, and it made me wonder why the color palettes made the show feel more like a one-hour flashback episode.
Where this show struggles the most is getting us invested in Lou’s journey. He mentions he’s been teaching at Stanton for 17 years, but it isn’t very convincing when he still comes off as the new kid on the block. In addition, his relentless push to put on “Spring Awakening,” a German coming-of-age play about sexually repressed teenagers in 1890, seems less like a believable motivation and more of a plot contrivance to induce some drama into the students’ lives.
The musical element of the show is much more persuasive. Unlike Glee, characters don’t just jump into song at random times, and we spend enough time with each of the teenagers to find their stories compelling. Lilette (a struggling waitress), Simon (a closeted gay guy), Michael (a transgender kid) and Robbie (the football quarterback) are all very well-cast, and the actors elevate the material across the board.
I’ve already seen the second episode and while it still suffers from some of the same problems (particularly the tone), it’s a vast improvement over this underwhelming pilot.
A shaky pilot from Jason Katims, but not completely unwatchable. Maybe one more episode?