In my experience, the third episode of a television show can be a make-or-break situation. In the best-case scenario, by its third episode a TV show should be able to exist and thrive confidently. Any initial issues from the pilot have been fixed, there’s been an additional week to stretch and get comfortable, and now the show can dig in and get to business. With Rise, I’m afraid we’re veering towards worst-case territory, and it’s not for a lack of plot.

Sure, there’s all the everything but where is this going? I’m not asking to be able to predict each and every plot twist but I can’t tell who I’m supposed to be following. Lou seems to be the obvious answer but he reaches new levels of unsympathetic in this episode. He begins the episode by laying out his idea for the production design of Stanton High’s Spring Awakening and it could not be more pretentious. He wants to blend contemporary and Victorian elements and blah blah blah. Somehow he spins this into delivering a passionate speech about how being a teenager is hard, and parents just don’t understand, and damn it if we haven’t been here before…

Tracy explains that they don’t have the budget for Lou’s ideas and she proposes some more money friendly alternatives. Lou shoots down her suggestions and insults every show she’s worked on in the process. If Lou were working harder to find solutions to the problems he’s causing, it would be easier for the audience to root for him. Instead, we have a mediocre white male teacher delivering speeches about “TRUTH” and leaving all the difficult work to his woman of color counterpoint who answers to him even though she has more experience.

I’m sure it’s a drag to read me lay out my main issue with the series every week but it’s frustrating because the show hasn’t figured out a way to mitigate the optics of Lou’s promotion over Tracy. Paired with Lou refusal to compromise even one bit, this is all getting tired. A story highlighting a scrappy and determined theater department scrambling to save the big show each week would have some dramatic action and forward motion that would have me cheering at every victory and crying with every loss. What Rise is providing instead is insulting not just to us, the viewer, but also its characters.

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Lou doesn’t just throw his authority around with Tracy. He visits Maashous’s foster family and threatens to make their lives a nightmare if Maashous isn’t cared for. He also stomps over to Simon’s parents house to make them question their decision to remove Simon from Stanton and send him to a private Catholic high school. As good or noble as he may think his actions to be, Lou is forcing his will on everyone in his orbit. He hasn’t earned the moral or emotional authority to demand anything from these parents. The audience isn’t rooting for Lou because we believe in him or trust his judgement. If your show can’t get the audience behind the person advocating for a child’s welfare, you messed something up along the way.

Another problem is that every scene in the show hits the same emotional note. It’s all tortured and conflicted. No one is making an acting choice that isn’t “tearfully and forcefully whisper speech.” (Unsurprisingly, the only cast member to consistently overcome this issue is Rosie Perez. When has Rosie Perez ever let us down?) The show has to undercut any moment that could have a different energy by connecting it to some tragedy. Lilette and Robbie’s tense study session is interrupted by Robbie needing to rush to his mother’s side. Gail and Maashous bond and it could have been a moment of familial peace but Gail asks what it’s like to be a foster child. Oh, I don’t know, Gail. Maashous was sleeping in the light booth at school so - not great, Gail!

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There’s never any release of tension so everything is tension. If it’s all tension, the tension means nothing. Let me continue to repeat myself and say the musical numbers would be a great change of pace. Seeing the students succeed and reveling in the success for a moment would allow for a reset and a little triumph before pulling the rug out from under our characters.

The lack of focus on the business of putting on a musical has me wondering once again: why a musical? I understand that the story of Lou Volpe is interesting and inspiring but sidelining the show business removes a large portion of what makes his story interesting. The effect that choice is creating is if Jason Katims doesn’t think the process of putting on a musical is that interesting, why should we? If the musical doesn’t factor into the action of the show, why make a musical? Lou Mazzuchelli could be a teacher who teaches banned or controversial books to his students or fights against the school becoming a charter school or something. There still would be passionate speeches about truth and believing in the youth or whatever, if that’s what you’re into, but it wouldn’t feel like a difficult-to-execute subplot wasn’t wedged into the show with no emotional or dramatic pay-off.


Stray Observations:

  • I know someone who didn’t do theater wrote this script because everyone keeps calling the show “a play” when it’s not a play, it’s a musical.
  • What’s going on with Michael? I sincerely believe that anything Michel is going through is more interesting and impactful than Mousehouse putting up some lights at Lou’s place.
  • Coach Sam’s sexy and romantic gift to try to win Vanessa’s heart back was a $5 phone case from Target.
  • Simon’s mom going to see Lou and demanding to know what he believes while they both cry is now the cheesiness standard for this show.
  • If we don’t see the costumes that Gwen’s mom designed, I’m suing NBC.

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