Just as no medical show will ever truly represent what it's like to work in an emergency room, there will never "finally" be a perfect show for high school theatre kids. However, NBC's Rise gets so much right about high school theatre in its premiere — a good portion of which a comedic satire like Glee or a Disney Channel Original Movie like High School Musical never could. The emotional experience should hit home to anyone impacted by the performing arts at a young age. Minor spoilers for the first episode ahead.
If you thought it was weird (but kind of awesome) that Reese Witherspoon's character was gunning so hard for that production o Avenue Q on Big Little Lies, this show is for you. If you couldn't stop grinning during the Merrily We Roll Along rehearsal scenes in Lady Bird, you're in the right place. Did it always used to bother you that Glee did songs from — or full productions of — musicals whose rights they would never be able to legally obtain in the real world? On Rise, the school's principal would rather the theatre program choose a public domain (free) operetta than a trendy recent show that would cost a pretty penny. What about the fact that the Glee kids always had impeccable production values despite having no stagehands? Again, Rise is for you.
It all begins with the basics. Executive Producer Jason Katims, creator of Friday Night Lights and Parenthood, is no stranger to small town drama and working class realism. That shows in Rise. Not everyone in the production is super talented at first, or even all that competitive. But just a few rehearsals in and they're a community — a troupe, even. It's not hard to see how performing gives these kids both the chance to grow and the chance to escape. They go home to jobs, imperfect parents, and issues that aren't treated like the backdrop to a Very Special Episode or a thought provoking mash-up.
Personally, I've often said that I learned all of the discipline and teamwork some get through sports by doing musical theatre in high school. Rise might be the first show that actually conveys that hard work accurately, and without too much glitter.
There are some deep cut moments in the premiere that theatre geeks will enjoy. Lou grumbles in a meeting that musicals are "typically referred to as shows, not plays." He's definitely the type of person that will wince if you call a musical cast recording a "soundtrack." But there are some plot holes too. If Stanton High already paid for the rights to Grease, why are they cancelling it just like that? Wait until next semester to do Spring Awakening. At the end of the day, Rise is still a television show. Some logic is bent to tell the story.
That said, one of the greatest things about the Rise pilot is that it checks every single genre trope off right away, so that the only thing left is possibility. Embarrassing audition montage? Check. The two students who always play the leads getting knocked down a peg? Check. The teacher that gets way too attached and involved? We got one of those! Administration getting in the way? You bet. Convincing a jock to do the school musical, while behind the scenes the teachers complain that the athletics department is being given an unfair amount of funding compared to the performing arts? Check and check. From High School Musical to Pitch Perfect, Fame, even School of Rock, and of course Glee... we've seen this all before. To borrow a phrase from NBC's dearly departed musical series Smash, "cut, print, moving on!"
Rise is sincere to a fault. But you know what else is sincere to a fault? Musical theatre. Even if the subject matter is dark, or tragic. The art of breaking into song when spoken words can no longer convey the emotions you're feeling in the moment is painfully sincere. Doing a high school show isn't going to save the world, but probably only Lou thinks that it might. But there's always somebody in every high school theatre program who thinks that, and odds are it's a director just like Lou.