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A lighter episode of Rise isn't invested in the drama department

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It’s telling that this episode of Rise spent an entire almost act of the episode on a tense, artfully shot football game and its aftermath. Rise just can’t help itself. It finds football more interesting and worthwhile than anyone or anything else involved in the play. For all its flaws (and it has many), Smash managed to find new ways to make the process of putting on a musical feel dramatic. There were casting shake-ups and lost voices and investors and set transitions! And Smash found ways to connect those literal issues with the show to the emotional issues of the characters. Rise just doesn’t seem invested in the drama of the drama department.


I’m perfectly fine with Rise being the story of a teenager being torn between his family’s expectations for his football career and discovering himself in the world of theater. I’d watch that show. That’s just not the show that Rise promised or is able to deliver. It’s not just a show about Robby. It’s about Lilette and Lou and Tracy and football and the town and teen drinking and this town.

It’s clear that Rise wants to be a show about football and THIS DAMN TOWN and I wish Jason Katims saved us all the disappointment and just made another show about an economically anxious town who loves their football. Where is the production of Spring Awakening in their rehearsal process? Are we close to opening night? What’s happening with the budget?

The idea that Robby choosing between football and theater feels sloppily done. Robby is the starting quarterback of the football team as a sophomore; he’s popular and a rising star.  In the musical, Robby is the lead role with no experience and is crushing it. Everyone likes him and wants to be closer with him. Where is the conflict? Are we supposed to feel sad that an unbelievably gifted teenager is slightly uncomfortable every now and then?

Robby’s dad thinks his issues on the field are because of theater but Robby was trying to help his friend show out for scouts. The reason things get tense with the football team at Robby’s party? They were being openly transphobic to Michael. Any decent person would have stood up to them. Are supposed to believe that Robby’s commitment to friendship gets in the way of his responsibilities? If that’s true, where has that been the first three episodes of the series? 


The issue with all of this is Robby isn’t the star of Rise. It’s Lou. And in this episode, we see how manipulative and cruel he can be. He mocks Tracy’s personal life and sets her up with a very cute teacher to stop her bothering him. He comes close to getting into a fist fight with his son and screams at his wife when she tells him to calm down. You’re the parent, the adult. She should tell you to calm down. This doesn’t seem like the type of character we’re supposed to root for but the show doesn’t do enough to show us that Lou is acting selfishly.


Tracy calls and chews him out. Lou is searching for Gordy and he can brush her off and continue to sideline her as “a trivial concern.” Instead of storming off out of principle, Tracy finishes her date and gets a sweet good night kiss. Lou was right! Tracy is written off as a shrew who just needed a little love and Lou is proven right! 

All the character moments aside, the episode felt like an attempt to strike a tone beyond “maudlin.” The episode felt lighter and didn’t take itself too seriously and it was desperately needed. Robby’s party was all about the teens through each other’s eyes and felt like a more standard high school drama. Who knew “standard” would feel like a fresh change of pace? The dramatically useful thing about teenagers is everything is dreadfully important. Every moment is the most important moment in their lives and any distraction from their wants is a sin tantamount to murder.


oo much time is spent in the world of the adults and the teenagers have become characters things happen to rather than people with goals and the agency to achieve them. Re-framing the series through the eyes of the high schoolers would fix a lot of problems. What does this conflict between football and theater mean for the students? Rise doesn’t want to make that shift. It wants us to take Lou seriously when a moment of the high schoolers sniggering about his extreme sincerity would be a needed moment of lightness. Rise continues to back away from the fun show it could be in favor of prioritizing the adults’ stories.

Stray Observations:

  • The theater kids singing at the football party gave me intense flashbacks to being that teenager and was the most realistic and authentic moment in the episode. And the only time I’ve ever laughed watching this show. 
  • Could this show use any other musical or visual references to tell us about this town? Are we supposed to believe that every student at Stanton High (including that Black-ass football team) only listens to gentle contemporary country music and looks for the beauty of distressed front doors and shoes on power-lines?
  • Michael’s story, which is necessary and underrepresented, is used as a vehicle for Robby to stand up to his friends. It’s not progressive to include a trans character if they never get to be a fully realized character.
  • When the football players were chanting “Heights!,” I wanted the theater kids to walk in and think they were talking about In the Heights.
  • All mediocre things must come to an end and this will be last review for Rise. I’ll work on convincing my editors to let me go back and grade Smash on a post-Rise curve.

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Ali Barthwell

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Ali Barthwell is a wearer of fine lipstick and fine hosiery.