A big part of me really wants to like Rise.
Staging high school musicals takes me right back to my youth, and while I admire what this new US drama is trying to achieve, it’s hard to ignore that the opening episode is highly derivative.
If Glee was put through a This is Us truth-filter it would be Rise, the new drama from Jason Katims (Friday Night Lights) and Jeffrey Seller (Rent, Hamilton).
The setting is small-town Stanton High School where English Lit teacher Lou (Josh Radnor) is frustrated that his 17 years of teaching are not having any impact on his students’ lives. So he proposes to the principal that he take charge of Theatre, a request met with little resistance.
But Tracy (Rosie Perez) the school’s current Theatre director, does not take kindly to being told her version of Grease has been shelved for the more obscure Spring Awakening.
“I have ideas. Change things up, make this into something special,” says Lou.
“I planned to put my spin on it,” a disgruntled Tracy insists.
As auditions get underway there are plenty of girls keen for a role including the sweet Lillette Suarez (Auli’i Cravalho) and instant rival Gwen (Amy Forsyth). At auditions we hear everything from Adele to Jesus Christ Superstar to Elton John.
There’s also Simon, the not-gay son of a devout Christian family, convinced he is worthy of a lead, but who will be cast in a same-sex attracted role.
But Lou is frustrated that he doesn’t have his leading man until talented football player Robbie (Damon J. Gillespie), who just happens to be struggling with his grades, is coaxed into an audition in exchange for re-sitting an exam. Surprise, surprise the kid is good and rehearsals get underway.
Naturally, Coach Sam (Joe Tippett) is opposed to the idea of his star player being potentially unfocussed before a big college game. This theatre thing has to go, prompting Lou into one of several earnest pleas across the opening episode.
“I saw you come alive. I think we can do something amazing,” he tells Robbie.
Also featuring in the episode is a mother locked in a tryst with a teacher, another mother in a nursing home, a transgender student, a principal threatening to shut down the program, a teen secretly sleeping on school premises and another battling addictions.
The tropes are highly familiar. It was Glee that saw footballer Finn join the glee club, against the wishes of Coach Sue Sylvester, and Principal Figgins threatening to shut down ambitious teacher Will Schuester. Ironically star Lea Michele had even starred in Spring Awakening.
Unlike Glee, the singing only occurs within the context of performances and rehearsals. It is encouraging they are authentic to the source material and not just reworked pop choons.
Despite such familiarity there is a sincerity to Rise that works. It isn’t cheesily-presented, and makes high use of hand-held, almost documentary-like cameras.
Yes it’s all a bit To Sir with Love, and nowhere near as much fun backstage series Smash.
Yet I suspect this will find an audience, especially those so empowered by the theatrics of songs like This Is Me or And I am Telling You I’m Not Going.
If we can get past the establishing echoes of every other let’s-put-on-a-show then Rise may still rise to the occasion.
Rise begins Wednesday on Stan.