Tuesday, March 13, 2018

REVIEW: 'Rise' - Lou Takes Over the Theater Department and Casts His First Musical in 'Pilot'

NBC's Rise - Episode 1.01 "Pilot"

Lou Mazzuchelli, an uninspired English teacher at Stanton High, petitions to take over as director of the school's theater program in an attempt to revitalize his passion for teaching, but quickly realizes he has his work cut out for him. His controversial decision to change the musical to the more provocative Spring Awakening and his atypical casting choices create a ripple effect for the program's assistant director Tracey Wolfe, the school's football coach Sam Strickland, and the students in the show.

It needs to be said upfront that Lou Mazzuchelli is a prick. He is such a self-righteous character who needs things to be done his way. That's not inherently a character flaw. Plenty of shows have lead characters who suffer from similar problems. And yet, Rise portrays Lou with so much earnestness. This premiere wants the audience to get swept up in the journey of Lou inspiring this theater department into action. He's shaking up the formula in a way that is surely needed. In the process though, he takes a job away from a deserving woman of color with more experience, he doesn't consult his wife despite this adding to the strain of time management in their family, he recruits the star football player for his lead role not caring what the consequences will be, he's surprised when people think his choice of Spring Awakening is too controversial to stage at a high school and he once again doesn't consult his wife when he decides to bring a homeless teenager into their family. It's a lot to deal with in this opening episode. In fact, it almost feels like too much. There is a lot of wallowing in misery in this community. The premiere showcases just how drab, boring and toxic the lives of all of these characters are. It does so in order for there to be a major transformation when they suddenly come alive while performing this show. In a short amount of time, this musical speaks to Lou and the kids enough that they are willing to band together and stage a protest when the school administration wants to shut them down. It's a very busy first episode that has no desire for subtlety. But again, it's hard to really connect with the material of the show because there is an aura of familiarity to it as well. Shows set in high school theater programs are rare. But this show aspires to be more about the community around this high school that comes alive through this musical. As such, it borrows several tropes that have become just too boring and commonplace to still be effective.

Plus, it never seems to be all that good at depicting what a high school theater program is like. That's a community I was proud to represent during my teenage years. It's a community where people form bonds and connect through shared interests. I still have such an appreciation for musical theater because of it. Here, the show is betting all of this inspiration and excitement on Spring Awakening being a better show than Grease. And yes, an argument can be made supporting that claim because of the edgier material. They are both award-winning musicals. One is just safe to perform in high schools while the other is controversial. But Lou really doesn't care about that at all. He wants to produce Spring Awakening. He wants his first show as head of the theater department to be memorable. He wants to challenge this community and the students. He wants to do that despite seemingly failing at his job as an English teacher. He can't get any of the students to respond in his class. As such, it's weird that he is instantly able to bond with the students in the theater. It's something that needs to happen for the sake of the plot. There is just such a disconnect between the show and the material though. Many characters walk around with an appreciation for Spring Awakening. They claim its a great show. But it never really seems interested in having an intelligent conversation about the musical. It just wants to devote that time to talking about its edgy content.

Of course, that should be an important conversation as well. This musical does deal with abortion and suicide among other things. It's very adult material. But it's a little laughable that no one in the high school administration seems to notice that despite them having to pay the rights to perform it. That's another aspect that is completely overlooked. It appears that Lou just picks this musical and holds auditions in the same week. It's a more complicated process than that because of the money involved. Lou is given free reign of this program. But he still has to coordinate it with the rest of the school. He can't be doing this completely by himself. The show gives him an ally in Tracey Wolfe. She was apparently a pain in the ass to the high school principal. That's why Lou got the job. And yet, the show actually depicts her as someone afraid to rock the boat. She comes alive because of this push from Lou. But it's yet another case of a woman of color needing to lift up the ideals of a white man and confirm that they are correct to have. That's not all that interesting. Lou is ready to give up as soon as he gets some pushback from the administration. Seeing the kids rally behind him is the clear sign that he has already made a difference in their lives. He is doing the right thing by actually listening to his students and challenging their minds. But it also seems like such an easy solution to this threat as well. It can't be the only time they face opposition this season. And yet, that shouldn't be the sole thing to define this experience either.

Lou dominates a majority of this premiere. That's what ultimately makes it so lackluster and lame. He's the person pulling all of this together because he has a big idea to inspire. Everyone basically goes along with it because they don't take him seriously. But the show ultimately rewards him too. Again, he is showing bad behavior. But he's still the protagonist whom the audience is suppose to root for. He's the good guy compared to the principal and football coach who only care about the big games on Friday nights. They only really become involved in this process because Lou recruits Robbie Thorne as the lead of the musical. He is the star quarterback who has surprising musical abilities. That's a trope that has been played out. It's the same exact story that happened in the first episode of Glee almost a decade ago. This show doesn't find a new spin on it. It says that Robbie noticed his new leading lady long before they were cast together in the show. And it's ultimately Robbie's responsibility for keeping Spring Awakening as the musical. His moment of inspiration and passion is largely reduced to one scene though. He talks about the show with his mother who is apparently sick and in a special care facility. That means he has a tragic and difficult family story as well. Everyone on this show does! His just provides him with the inspiration and courage to perform in this musical because he connects with the story and the character. Of course, the show never really outlines what draws Robbie to the role. He can't quite put it into words. As such, it's hard to get the sense that Rise knows how to appreciate art without seeming full of itself or condensing. That may be its largest hurdle to overcome.

Some of the additional character stories introduced in this premiere include Lou's son, Gordy, probably being an alcoholic who is distant from his lame parents; the lighting guy, Maashous, coming to life with the Mazzuchelli family because Lou wants to encourage him to thrive in this environment, and Simon struggling with playing a gay character because he comes from a very conservative family. The first two seem like pure melodrama for the family at the center of this story. Lou's wife and children don't really take up too much space in this premiere. They are mostly expendable. And yet, they shouldn't. Their lives should be affected by his passion for this musical as well. He is risking a lot to stage this production. He should feel that pressure at home as he struggles to be a good parent. He seems like he cares more about his students than his own family. That's not right. Meanwhile, it's a little too obvious that Simon is being set up for a coming out story over the course of this season. As such, it feels like the show is basically just implanting the same exact story from Spring Awakening with its own character. But he's still pretty entertaining in this premiere. Of course, the true star of the show is Lillette. She's the student whose personal story feels the most important right now. She has a single mother with a reputation of sleeping around and destroying families in this community. Lillette aspires to get out of this town to pursue bigger opportunities. She sees this musical as her ticket out. She has the passion and it is genuine. More time should be spent on her even though it seems likely that she'll continue to lock horns with her mother.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Pilot" was written by Jason Katims and directed by Mike Cahill.
  • It's extremely unclear how much time passes in this premiere. A reasonable case could be made for a week as well as a month. There seems to be many rehearsals for the show already. There is a whole montage of bonding amongst the cast. They already seem to be nailing the production of several numbers. And yet, the school administration reading the script and having a problem seems like something that would have happened early in the process. Plus, it doesn't seem like Robbie is missing any practice.
  • Gwen and Simon have always been cast as the leads in the musicals. They were set to play Sandy and Danny in Grease. Simon struggles with his new role and voices his concerns. But he eventually comes around to it. Meanwhile, Gwen is very much the stereotypical mean girl who doesn't like Lillette taking the spotlight away from her.
  • Of course, there is more of a personal grudge between Gwen and Lillette as well. Gwen's father is also the football coach and he is having an affair with Lillette's mom. That appears to be an open secret with Gwen's family. And yet, Lillette argues that it's not true. As such, the show has to spend time with Lillette making this discovery and learning that her mother isn't the best role model.
  • Everything going on with Gordy and Lou is just way too blunt. The show introduces the alcoholism in such a straightforward and surprising way. It's apparently an issue this family has been dealing with for awhile. And yet, it's strange to hear Lou telling his teenage son that he needs to go to AA in order to get his money and car back. It's an odd expositional line that isn't delivered all that well.
  • Keen TV fans will also notice Shannon Purser from Stranger Things and Sean Grandillo from The Real O'Neals as some of the students in the play. They are mostly background extras right now. They don't have much prominence in the story. And yet, the show casting them will ensure that they will have importance at some point.