'Rise': TV Review

Takes its time, but finally finds its voice.

NBC's musical theater drama has a number of early problems, including a misguided Josh Radnor performance, but it gets better as the first season progresses.

Using the Winter Olympics as a platform, NBC has been aggressively pitching its new musical drama Rise as the love child of Friday Night Lights and Glee. There's some truth in that advertising, but Rise is one of those stubborn shows that takes its sweet time refining its voice.

The network made all 10 first season episodes available to critics, and by the end, Rise felt very close to the show it aspires to be. Getting there, however, requires weathering at least half a season of choppy pacing, unconvincing character introductions and an ostensible hero who is far more unlikable than the show initially believes.

Rise is adapted by Jason Katims (Friday Night Lights) from Michael Sokolove's book Drama High, focusing on the intrepid theater director at a struggling high school in a rundown Pennsylvania steel town.

Josh Radnor plays Lou Mazzuchelli, an entirely uninspired English teacher trying and failing to get his students to connect with Steinbeck. For reasons the show struggles to articulate and with no qualifications at all, Lou walks into the principal's office and asks to be put in charge of the theater department, even though it is already being run by Tracey Wolfe (Rosie Perez). Tracey's greatest sin is that she's a bit of a hack, comfortable with directing the same familiar musicals with the same familiar leads (Amy Forsyth's Gwen and Ted Sutherland's Simon). By agreeing to work for less than Tracey and without bothering to consult his wife Gail (Marley Shelton), Lou gets the job and scraps Grease for Spring Awakening and busts Gwen and Simon down to key supporting parts in favor of Lilette Suarez (Auli'i Cravalho), a girl from the wrong side of the tracks, and Robbie Thorne (Damon J. Gillespie), whose status as quarterback of the football team puts Lou in the crosshairs of Coach Strickland (Joe Tippett).

That's before anybody in a position of authority starts noticing that the text of Spring Awakening is mighty mature, but not before "Mr. Mazzu" makes sure that the students and audience alike get just how neatly Spring Awakening's themes of youth rebellion and liberation tie into the themes of the series. Brace yourself. It's a lot of Spring Awakening repetition, since the show is one musical stretched over a season. "Mama who bore me," indeed.

Directed by Mike Cahill, the pilot for Rise is a mess. It's probably around five episodes' worth of plot crammed into 42 badly edited minutes that concentrate on incident over character or narrative logic. It's astounding to have people we've barely met doing things that still feel out of character, but Rise pilot pulls it off.

Lou is the protagonist of Rise, and the pilot doesn't get that he comes across as a villain. He steals a qualified woman's job without consideration, and is neglectful of his meek wife and clearly troubled son (Casey Johnson). He's autocratic, sanctimonious and insufferable, and this forces Radnor into a performance that makes Lou into the most self-serious version of his How I Met Your Mother character without the humor or the ego-deflating sidekicks.

I'm sure Katims and Rise think that Lou is flawed and in-over-his-head, but that he's a dedicated man whom we'll want to see learn. Instead, the show around Lou only becomes tolerable when everybody starts insulting him a few episodes in. In a series that's supposed to be about big emotional responses, my biggest was to the character who finally tells him, "Not everything's about you, Lou." And Lou only becomes slightly appealing in the last episodes when somebody realized that one of the best things about hiring a leading man with 10 years of TV comedy experience is that he can be funny occasionally. Making Radnor rely on a beaten, hangdog expression for whole episodes at a stretch and then pairing him with the always-dynamic Perez creates an imbalance of energy.

Or maybe the early directors actually were telling Radnor, "Stop being charming, we need Lou to earn the audience's affection." By the end of the first season, the impression given is less that Lou has grown than that the writers tinkered with how to feature him while also writing Gail so that she isn't just the wet-blanket wife sitting at home wondering why her hubby is too busy to make date night — or why he brought home the random homeless kid with the odd name (Rarmian Newton's Maashous) from the lighting booth. If there's anything Katims should have learned from Friday Night Lights, it's that Coach Taylor's awesomeness grew in direct proportion to Tami Taylor's ability to be his equal (or superior). By the tenth episode, Lou and Gail Mazzuchelli are moving in that right direction.

Even that improvement will probably raise the ire of people frustrated that Lou's closeted homosexuality in the source material has been erased. The show has a very sincere coming-out arc for a different main character, and in Ellie Desautels' Michael, it has a prominent trans character. Both of those storylines offer real highlights, but both feature head-scratching details as well. Plus, "Hey look, we've got this other inclusiveness" is almost never a good answer to a question about eliding representation. As a critic, I have textual problems with Lou that have nothing to do with his being heterosexual and everything to do with his being insufferable for too long.

Many of the changes in the second half of the season feel like abrupt course correction, like how at least three characters suddenly, in the sixth episode, emerge from nowhere in the Spring Awakening ensemble and become instantly important like we were supposed to recognize them. Some of that is just writers gaining confidence and also actors settling into performances, especially given how the narrative aggressiveness of the pilot likely led to certain broad choices. One can understand why Tippett's character has to be a bit of a generic, arts-hating meathead initially before gaining nuance from the fact that Coach Strickland is both Gwen's father and on-again, off-again lover to Lilette's fiery mom (Shirley Rumierk).

Poor Lou-based choices aside, most of the core Rise cast is quite good, starting with remarkable Moana vet Cravalho. It's rare that the "star is born" moment in stories like this translates so purely to the audience, but every time Cravalho/Lillette opens her mouth or takes the spotlight, the camera and all eyes are on lockdown. Her personality meshes nicely with Gillespie's much quieter charm, which conveys decency and earnestness over red-hot charisma. Like Tippett and Shelton, the ensemble responds to improved writing and storytelling clarity with improved performances as the season progresses; Sutherland, Johnson, Desautels, Sean Grandillo and even Barb herself, Shannon Purser, are standouts.

The "Stick with a show, it gets better" message is one of the most frustrating a critic can send in this era of television glut, but audiences have expectations for shows like Rise. By the end of its first season, the show starts to provide the cathartic tears, downy blankets of warmth and stirring swells of inspiration the genre demands. There are just a lot of rough patches and a lot of wanting to strangle Mr. Mazzu to get through before.

Cast: Josh Radnor, Rosie Perez, Auli’i Cravalho, Damon J. Gillespie, Marley Shelton, Rarmian Newton, Ted Sutherland, Amy Forsyth, Casey W. Johnson, Taylor Richardson, Joe Tippett, Shirley Rumierk
Creator: Jason Katims

Premieres: Tuesday, March 13, 9 p.m. ET/PT (NBC)