'Rise' Review: NBC's New Musical Drama Gets Many Things Right

It's hard to think of the premise to Rise without remembering its predecessors, but the new NBC high school drama take its feelings to previously unexplored places.

For Friday Night Lights fans, the Jason Katims-created series will feel almost set in the same universe, as the series looks at high school life in a small town. But this time, Katims steps away from Texas and football Fridays to a small Pennsylvania town and the world of musical theater.

In the first episode, which debuted Tuesday following the This Is Us season two finale, viewers meet Lou Mazzuchelli (How I Met Your Mother's Josh Radnor). He's an English teacher with a wife and three kids, the oldest of whom, Gordy (Casey Johnson), is a football player struggling with a drinking problem.

After noticing his students' lack of interest in the classroom, Lou expresses interest in taking over the drama department at Stanton High School. He immediately gets the job because the principal is not the biggest fan of the woman who is supposed to inherit it. The woman, Tracy (Rosie Perez), is putting together a production of Grease when Lou arrives and announces that he will take over and she'll be demoted to assistant director. He also announces Grease will be scrapped for a production of Spring Awakening, a coming-of-age musical that deal with themes of sexuality, child abuse and abortion.

Despite the white, entitled, male lead character — which might cause some to underestimate the series at first glance — Rise looks far beyond the head of its drama department. A diverse cast of students, led by Auli'i Cravalho (Moana) and newcomer Damon Gillespie, elevates the series when telling how the theater affects their loves and helps them grow outside the roles their small-town lives have scripted for them.

At first, Lou is portrayed as stubborn, focused on having things done his way without listening to the people around him. The character created controversy even before the show aired. He's based on Lou Volpe, a gay man and the subject of the book Drama High. Katims said he used the book as inspiration but decided to make the story his own, as he did with Friday Night Lights and Parenthood. The series, however, openly explores Lou's flaws as the first season progresses, and viewers can sympathize with his enthusiasm and care for his students as well as for his children.

Rise will also be closely compared to TV-musical predecessor Glee, but they don't have much in common. Rise follows the production and staging of a musical, not looking to exaggerated humor or "themes of the week" for spontaneously unrealistic musical numbers in football fields. The NBC series feels more authentic, leaving the singing and dancing for the stage, and the teenage angst and real problems for the halls and homes.

The series also addresses social issues, including class, religion and sexual orientation, mirroring the themes explored in the musical they're putting together. The portrayal of closeted-gay student Simon's (Ted Sutherland) journey to self-acceptance despite his conservative upbringing is one of the show's most compelling storylines. And the introduction of trans student Michael (Ellie Desautels), who is fully accepted by his theater troupe but struggles in the outside world, is the kind of story that needs to be told during our contemporary times.

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Rise is not a perfect series and has a lot to live up to compared to its time-slot predecessor This Is Us. But the 10-episode high school drama does a compelling job exploring the struggles of growing up, and makes a serious case for keeping arts departments funded in public schools.

Rise premieres Tuesday at 10 p.m. ET, all other episodes for seasons one will air Tuesdays at 9 p.m. ET on NBC.