The Buzz: ‘Rise’ Gets Weighed Down By Limp Melodrama

Melodrama occupies a rare space in today’s entertainment world. While shows like Friday Night Lights and This Is Us have been able to eschew cliché for genuine heartbreak and emotional gravitas, most melodramas have overestimated viewers’ tolerance, and have wound up face first on the floor. Rise, NBC’s latest crack at the genre, is one such causality-- a saccharine attempt at squeezing emotion from an audience, without giving them a worthwhile reason to drop any preconceived cynicisms.

Helmed by Jason Katims, the mastermind behind This Is Us, Rise tells the story of Lou Mazzucchelli (Josh Radnor), a teacher who takes over a failing theater program at a high school and helps students realize their creative dreams. This of course, being melodrama, Mazzucchelli faces pushback from some of the students, as well as their parents, who question the teacher’s seemingly selfless efforts. 

Though the show is based on true events, one would never be able to guess it based on the stiff, cardboard-worthy characterizations that comprises it. The students that Mazzucchelli gives his time to helping are ineffectual tropes, a series of attitudes and angsty problems that he’s supposed to remedy and thus gain their respect. You know the deal. There’s the perennial star Simon (Ted Sutherland), who, upon being cast in a supporting role, has to learn how to let go of his ego and support his fellow actors. There’s Michael (Ellie Desautels), the pre-op transgender student who’s largely there to illustrate how the other students are either supportive or transphobic. The show even takes a page out of Glee-- or High School Musical, you choose-- by casting popular jock Robbie (Damon J. Gillespie) in the play’s lead role. Surprise, surprise: he struggles to reconcile the world of competitive sports-- and the disdain of his macho coach (Joe Tippett) -- with his artistic interests. 

Anyone hoping for salvation via the adult characters are out of luck. They represent as mixed a bag-- and as predictable a bag-- as their teenage counterparts. Rosie Perez is wasted as Mazzucchelli's reluctant assistant, offering little more than a skeptical voice as he goes about making theater miracles. Marley Shelton is completely sidelined as Mazzucchelli’s wife, as the writers can’t seem to decide whether she should be encouraging or the cause of additional tension (their marriage is said to be hanging on by a thread, though we see very little back that up). 

Then there is Radnor of How I Met Your Mother fame, who stumbles in his first major foray into dramatic television. While his milquetoast demeanor and quirky charm lend themselves well to an ensemble, he lacks the credibility to carry such a heavy-handed series. The majority of Radnor’s scenes have him coming off like the motivational speaker at an after school special-- which is to say, not very effective, and a little corny. A quality beard can only do so much to rectify that image.

That said, I do not hold the cast accountable for what they’re doing (or fail to do). I place the blame to Katims, who, after hitting paydirt with the This Is Us, has attempted to recreate it here without any of the likable characters or genuine sweetness. Everything in Rise is telegraphed to within an inch of its life. The dramatic moments lack subtlety, and the heartwarming moments are so sickeningly sappy they feel less like a touching moment and more like a Hallmark stock photo come to life. There is no more great drama to be had in contrivance-- the trick is to circumvent contrivance and present a variation on what’s come before, like This Is Us. Why Katims opted to phone it in here is a mystery that’ll hopefully be resolved by the end of the first season.

Rise will have to make some serious changes if it hopes to make good on its prestige intentions. The cast is decent, and one could feasibly envision a world where they could execute storylines that were sharper and less reliant on clichéd situations. In the meantime, this is one high school class you might consider skipping.

Episodes of Rise air on Tuesdays at 10 p.m. EST on NBC.