• Tuesday, September 18, 2018
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Features

‘Rise’ is no ‘Friday Night Footlights’

  • COURTESY NBC

    Auli’i Cravalho, left, as Lilette Suarez, and Shirley Rumierk as Vanessa Suarez in a scene from “Rise,” premiering today on NBC.

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“RISE”

Premieres tonight at 9 p.m on NBC (airs regularly at 8 p.m. Tuesdays)

Rewatching “Friday Night Lights” with my kids recently got me thinking: America could really use another “Friday Night Lights” right now.

Set in George W. Bush’s Texas beginning in 2006, that high school football series confronted family drama and divisive issues (race, abortion, the war in Iraq) in ways that assumed complexity and decent intentions on everyone’s part.

“FNL” treated its teenagers and adults as more than types. Even if characters were deeply wrong, the series had the generosity to show you how they could see themselves as right. It had an acute sense of how community and family can be both sustaining and suffocating.

“Rise,” which premieres tonight on NBC, is a natural successor, on paper. It comes from Jason Katims, the “Friday Night Lights” showrunner. It’s set in a fictional Stanton, Pa., the kind of Rust Belt town, a dead steel mill haunting its outskirts, that has starred in a billion “Let’s check in on the Trump voter” features.

And its subject — the uproar over a high school musical production — seems an ideal vehicle to test the fissures of our own decade. Generational war, culture war, hormonal teenagers discovering their passions (artistic and otherwise): Bring it on, “Friday Night Footlights”!

I think “Rise” wants to be that kind of show. But its first 10-episode season is proof that wanting alone does not make a thing so.

Its first problem is stage center. Lou Mazzuchelli (Josh Radnor), a dispirited English teacher, talks his way into taking over the school drama department. He has no experience — unlike the colleague, Tracey Wolfe (Rosie Perez), he blithely steps over — but he has a big ambition: putting on “Spring Awakening,” the rock musical about teenagers in sexually repressed 19th-century Germany.

Lou’s character was controversial even before the show was screened. The series is based (like “FNL” was) on a nonfiction book, “Drama High,” by Michael Sokolove, about Lou Volpe, a high school drama teacher in Levittown, Pa., who came out as gay late in life. Katims renamed Lou and reimagined him as a married straight man with kids.

I can’t know if Lou would work better if Katims hadn’t taken that liberty. I do know that Radnor is not convincing — or he is, but in the wrong ways.

Lou has supposedly taught in Stanton for 17 years, yet he interacts with everyone as if he’s just stepped off the bus. He seems blindsided, for instance, that the conservative small town he’s taught in for a generation might resist a school play that involves incest, abortion and a kiss between boys.

The character has a priggish self-seriousness that worked for Radnor when he starred in “How I Met Your Mother” as Ted, whose emo intensity the show tweaked lovingly.

In “Rise,” it’s confusing. Lou comes across as well-meaning but full of himself, like Schue in “Glee.” (Like that show, “Rise” also involves the ruse of recruiting a football player — Robbie, played by Damon J. Gillespie — as a singer). The performance cues you to see Lou as blinded, maybe a little ridiculous.

But the show, especially early on, treats him as a heroic inspiration. This dissonance with his character makes “Rise” feel at times like someone remade “Waiting for Guffman” in the manner of “Dead Poets Society.”

The young cast is good to terrific, and “Rise” is better the closer it gets to the kids’ stories. Lilette (Auli‘i Cravalho) waitresses alongside her mother to pay the household bills. Simon (Ted Sutherland) is wrestling with his sexual identity, which becomes doubly fraught when Lou casts him as a character with a male love interest, outraging Simon’s conservative Catholic family. Ellie Desautels is remarkable as Michael, a transgender boy with a knockout voice.

There are a lot of stories to interweave here. (I found myself confusing two characters until one helpfully got a nose ring.) The shaky pilot takes the group from reluctant performers to a cohesive unit implausibly fast. But the cast sells the offstage drama, and the musical snippets are transporting.

The other global issue is how “Rise” stacks the deck dramatically. Lou’s opponents are almost all portrayed as craven, repressed or philistine for preferring that the school produce “The Pirates of Penzance.” The major exception is Tracey, whom Perez plays as a passionate pragmatist.

(It’s also a little rich for NBC to air a show about a town being too provincial for “Spring Awakening,” a show that it’s hard to imagine the network mounting uncensored for its December musical.)

But more often, “Rise” sees Stanton through Lou’s perspective, which ranges from bleak to condescending. “I wanted to send a message to the people of Stanton,” Lou says when the production is in jeopardy. “We see you. You’re not forgotten.” The town is shot in drained color, as if it’s cloudy even on sunny days.

I wouldn’t expect “Rise” to be neutral about free expression or closed-mindedness: Works of fiction naturally tend to be pro-art. But without seeing its antagonists as full people — the expansive empathy that defined “FNL” — it has little to add to a familiar story of artists vs. censors.

In the second half of the season, “Rise” becomes more vibrant, less dour. It starts to challenge and leaven Lou’s self-absorption, and both character and story make more sense. It even shows a sense of humor when Lou has to rewrite a profane lyric to meet community standards. (“Totally hosed” is one variant he tries.)

This version of “Rise” works better, and the finale gave me the right kind of chills. I could imagine the series coming into its own in future seasons (presumably involving other productions and challenges).

But a stage production can go through weeks of rough rehearsals, and none of it will matter if it works out the kinks by the premiere. With “Rise,” you have to sit through the growing pains.

You might do that if, like me, you find that this is the sort of show essentially engineered in a lab for you to want it to succeed. But the best version of this high school musical will have to come, if it does, in its second act.

RELATED STORIES:

>> Musicals, teen angst — and Auli‘i Cravalho — star in ‘Rise’

>> On the Scene With Auli‘i Cravalho

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