LOS ANGELES – After two seasons of sending viewers into mass depression with “This Is Us,” NBC owes us something more uplifting than adding Kelly Clarkson to “The Voice.”
“Rise,” which premieres Tuesday immediately after the four-hanky hit, isn’t quite an antidote but it’ll more than suffice. In fact, for those who thought networks had pretty much given up on inspirational TV for adults, the series is an unexpected burst of sunshine.
“I think we went through a big antihero phase on TV,” said the show’s star, Josh Radnor, best known for moping about as the lovesick lead on “How I Met Your Mother.” “We were kind of exploring darkness for a while, but I think people are hungry for something else.”
Radnor plays Lou Mazzuchelli, a burnt-out English instructor who decides to take over the high school’s theater department even though his most impressive credential is that he despises “Cats.”
His first decision, to stage the provocative modern-rock musical “Spring Awakening” instead of “Grease,” ticks off his underappreciated assistant, Tracey, and the “American Gothic” citizens of a blue-collar Pennsylvania town still reeling from the closing of its mine. They’re more likely to fund a Jumbotron for the football squad than a lighting board for the drama club.
But the students quickly become hopelessly devoted to the more challenging material — at least when they’re not dealing with gender re-identification, alcoholism, divorcing parents, homelessness and broken hearts.
“What’s so exciting about the show is watching these kids discover the talent they have and be challenged by it and, at moments, be scared by it,” said creator Jason Katims, who based the series on “Drama High,” a 2013 nonfiction book celebrating teacher Lou Volpe of Levittown, Pa.
Katims has dealt with this kind of material before, most notably in “Friday Night Lights” and “Parenthood.” Both were critically acclaimed series that never reached a wide audience, lending credence to the theory that networks can’t expect dramas to get spectacular ratings without soap-opera story lines.
Then came “This Is Us.” If Katims is jealous of the creator of that series, Dan Fogelman, getting the attention Katims deserved years earlier, he’s not about to say so publicly.
“That show’s success has kind of cleared the path for doing shows like ‘Rise,’ which are character-driven and have a deep sort of emotional core,” Katims said. “To be launching our first episode right after their finale is an incredible opportunity.”
Serious about the arts
Comparisons to “Glee” are also inevitable, especially since that show’s star, Lea Michele, starred in the original Broadway production of “Spring Awakening.” But a closer relative would be “Fame,” the 1980 film and subsequent TV series in which students at a performing-arts high school were more likely to appreciate Stephen Sondheim than Britney Spears.
This is a series that’s serious about the arts and its potential to have a positive impact on teenagers. To promote the show, NBC is awarding $10,000 grants to theater departments at 50 high schools, including Pine Island in southeast Minnesota.
“Arts can help kids develop critical thinking, their civic-minded duty to the world and their self-esteem as human beings,” said Rosie Perez, whose performance as the overlooked Tracey will remind viewers why she earned an Oscar nomination for her work in “Fearless” 25 years ago. “I grew up not with a silver spoon in my mouth. I grew up very, very rough. But I did have the arts, and it did change me because I was a very, very angry, introverted but still adorable kid.”
Perez hopes young viewers will react to “Rise” the way she did when she saw “The Wiz” on Broadway as a 12-year-old on a school field trip.
“It was the first time I cried in public and wasn’t embarrassed. It changed me as a person,” she said. “What I really love about ‘Rise’ is that it does showcase the importance of the arts but also talks about the politics behind arts in the schools. I think that’s really, really important.”
Radnor sees the series as a tribute to the kind of teachers who inspired him as a teenager, in particular Harlene Marley, his adviser at Ohio’s Kenyon College, who passed away two weeks before filming on the pilot began.
On the first day of shooting, Radnor passed a prop cart filled with scripts and started leafing through Neil Simon’s “Rumors.”
“I suddenly realized that Harlene had directed me in this play. It was a weird, mystical moment,” he said. “I felt like she was kissing me on the forehead and telling me that I had been the student in our dynamic and now I was being asked to be the teacher, and embody the energy of these beautiful people that inspired me so much. It felt like a huge gift.”
“Rise” co-producer Jeffrey Seller, who had his own epiphany when he saw “Dreamgirls” as a teenager, has already inspired waves of young people by coproducing “Hamilton.” The first episode even nods to that groundbreaking musical by having Mazzuchelli sing a snippet from the song “Alexander Hamilton” when his wife begrudgingly agrees to let him take on the extra work of running the theater program.
“ ‘Rise’ represents everything I believe in, which is family, community and the arts,” Seller said.