'Rise' Producers Defend NBC Drama Amid Allegations of "Straight-Washing"

RISE S01E01 Still - Publicity - H 2018
Peter Kramer/NBC

NBC's Rise is not shying away from telling LGBTQ stories.

Despite a wave of headlines suggesting otherwise since Rise creator Jason Katims appeared before press Tuesday, the drama inspired by the book Drama High is telling its own story and is not "straight-washing" its lead character of Lou as has been suggested by multiple media outlets (many of whom were not present for the news conference).

"The misinterpretation by some of what we've done with this show goes against what we fundamentally believe and who we are as individuals," Rise executive producers Katims, Jeffrey Seller and Flody Suarez said Saturday in a joint statement. "We are firmly committed to LGBTQ inclusion, and most of all, are excited for the community to see Rise, which we believe portrays positive depictions of LGBTQ characters and stories on broadcast television with honesty and sensitivity. To that end, we worked with GLAAD on the show's LGBTQ storylines to ensure they are told with respect and authenticity.”

To be clear, author Michael Sokolove's nonfiction book Drama High tells the true story of Lou Volpe, a man who spends more than four decades of his life teaching drama in a high school in Pennsylvania. Volpe is a married man with children who comes out as gay late in life, which Drama High explores at length.

For Katims (the showrunner behind NBC dramas Parenthood and Friday Night Lights), Rise is inspired by Drama High and Volpe's life rights. His central character of Lou Mazzuchelli (played by Josh Radnor) is, like the show itself, different from Volpe and Drama High. (Volpe consults on the series.) Rise's Lou, at least through the first five episodes provided for critics, is straight.

Katims addressed that during his time at the Television Critics Association's winter press tour (where this reporter was present) when he was asked about the decision to have his Lou be straight. Here's his full response:

I think that the source material that you're talking about, Drama High and that teacher, Lou Volpe, was such an inspiration to me and to everybody doing the show. To see somebody who, as you said, spent 44 years dedicated to this program was amazing. And I really hope that there is and believe that we carry a lot of his spirit into the show. But in terms of the adaptation itself and why we made that decision, it’s like as you said, it’s very much we took that as an inspiration, and then I really felt like I needed to make it, you know, kind of my own story. And I definitely didn’t want to shy away from issues of sexuality and gender, but was inspired to tell the story of Michael, this transgender character, and Simon, who’s dealing with his emerging sexuality and growing up in a very sort of conservative religious family. And those stories felt like they were sort of resonant with resonated with me kind of as a storyteller, and I wanted to kind of lean into that. And then really with Lou’s family life and Lou’s family itself, there’s a lot of reimagination, not only in terms of whether he was gay or straight, but in terms of that family structure. Like, for example, you see in the pilot there’s a storyline with his son, Gordy, who we suggest has a drinking problem. As you go on and you watch the next several episodes, even in episode two, that turns into a very a major storyline and becomes, I think, a very powerful part of our storytelling. So, you know, I really wanted I felt like it was important to me to honor what the source material was, but then to also kind of make it my own so that we would all be able to sort of lean in and do the work that we need to do as actors and writers.

Many media outlets misinterpreted the comments from Katims — who is straight — as making his Lou straight so he could better relate to the character. (TV writers often write from their own experience, which Katims, for example, did frequently on Parenthood.) Lou's sexuality is but one of many instances on Rise that are totally different from the book. Among the examples are Michael (played by trans actor Ellie Desautels), a transgender student at the high school; Simon (Ted Sutherland), a teen raised by a conservative and religious family who explores his own sexuality after being cast as a gay character in the school's production of Spring Awakening; and Lou's married lesbian sister-in-law, among others. Rise has been working with LGBTQ advocacy group GLAAD on many of its storylines in an effort to realistically portray those stories. Rise is so different from Drama High that the Writers Guild of America — which dutifully reviews credits — determined Katims created the NBC drama rather than saying he "developed" the show for television, according to EW, which first reported the producers' response to the controversy. The latter is standard when TV shows (like AMC's The Walking Dead) more closely adhere to source material. What's more, the Rise characters of Robbie (Damon J. Gillespie) and Lilette (Auli'I Cravalho) are not in Drama High at all.

Rise revolves around a working-class high school drama department and the students who come alive under a passionate teacher and family man whose dedication to the program galvanizes the entire town. Hamilton executive producer Seller and Suarez — who have an overall deal with NBC studio counterpart Universal Television — brought the book to NBC Entertainment president Bob Greenblatt (who happens to be broadcast television's only openly gay network topper). Greenblatt, the same exec who greenlighted Broadway drama Smash at Showtime and again at NBC, loved the idea of using Drama High as a stepping stone for a series. The trio then called Katims, and he knew based on a paragraph-long description that he wanted to do it as his next TV series.  

Watch the Rise trailer, below. Rise will premiere Tuesday, March 13, following the This Is Us finale before moving to its regular slot at 9 p.m. ET/PT.