For some reason, the folks behind the NBC drama Rise, which premiered Tuesday night, didn’t think the show had any chance of making it to air, to which I ask: Have any of them turned on a TV in the past decade? The show—about a small town in Pennsylvania coming together under the new leadership of its high school’s theater department, and inspired by a true story—is an unholy fusion of Friday Night Lights, Glee, and This Is Us. (Not for nothing, Rise’s showrunner, Jason Katims, was an executive producer on Friday Night Lights.) OF COURSE it was making it to air.
What do these shows have in common, aside from being a surefire ratings hit? They can seriously manufacture tears. They are programs built to drag you through a gantlet of heart-crushing life events. And even though it’s fairly clear what they’re trying to do, it’s impossible to stop the stream of tears. On the one hand, how many awful things can really happen to this one family in This Is Us? On the other hand, oh my God a Crock-Pot has committed a murder and NOOOO.
In honor of this latest entry into the tear-jerking tradition, I watched the premiere of Rise and tallied up every time the series blatantly tried to make the audience very sad, noted if any of it was effective, and, heaven forbid, if any of it made me ugly cry—Rick Grimes style—in front of my roommate, who was just trying to play video games. Let’s get started.
Oh Boy, a Steel Mill Montage
The opening credits to Rise double as an introduction to Stanton, Pennsylvania, a small town that’s haunted by the ghosts of steel mills past.
Holy cow, someone just etched RIP onto a steel worker’s hard hat? The only way that could have been less subtle is if a voice-over shouted in my ear, “THIS TOWN HAS SEEN BETTER DAYS!” It’s hard to think of a more depressing backdrop.
Am I crying? Not yet, but I definitely never want to make a pitstop in Stanton.
The Football Star
Robbie (Damon J. Gillespie) is your average high school quarterback phenom with the voice of an angel who can also do Hamilton-esque freestyle raps. But his life’s not all dope fade routes and perfect harmonies: He’s struggling with his grades, and constantly visiting his ailing mother in the hospital.
He gives her flowers and kisses her on the forehead as some really sad folk music settles and the whole audience reconsiders their biases against high school jocks. We don’t even know what’s wrong with Robbie’s mom, but I’m going to have to assume it’s life-threatening, and that she might not survive the season. (If that happens, I will cry.)
Also, I know what you’re thinking: Would a star quarterback really want to also be part of a theater production on the side? Well, he kinda doesn’t have a choice. If Robbie wants to pass English class (and remain eligible for football), then he’ll have to participate in the production of Spring Awakening being put on by new drama teacher Mr. Mazzu, full name Mr. Mazzuchelli. He’s played by Josh Radnor, so I’m just calling him Sadder Ted Mosby.
Mr. Mazzu tells Robbie the production will cause him to miss only one game on the season. Who wants to bet it’s going to be a really important game, and that Robbie chooses the play?
Am I crying? No, but Robbie is filling the Tim Riggins void in my soul, so it’s only a matter of time.
Sadder Ted Mosby’s Sad Family
Mr. Mazzu’s home life isn’t an unmitigated disaster; the main issue seems to be that he’s willingly accepted extra work by taking over the theater department in addition to teaching English. But then we learn that his son, Gordy (terrible name, by the way), has been sneaking booze and might be an alcoholic.
There’s a passing mention of taking Gordy to an AA meeting, which I gotta admit, sounds like a bit of a reach: Lighten up, Mazzus! We need more backstory behind this—maybe Gordy has done this more than once and he’s just really bad at finding new hiding places. Regardless, the Mazzu family household isn’t in the best shape.
Am I crying? I’m mostly confused, to be honest. Would my mom have sent me to AA if she found my Smirnoff Ice stash when I was 15?!
One Affair to Rule Them All
Time to introduce two of the theater kids: There’s Gwen (Amy Forsyth), a preppy girl who’s the daughter of the head coach of the Stanton High School football team, and Lilette (Auli’i Cravalho), a more reserved student who’s clearly waiting for her time to shine, and whose single mother is a waitress at a local diner. Here’s where their feud lies: Gwen believes her dad and Lilette’s mom are having an affair. When Lilette asks her mom about it, she denies it.
But when Lilette snoops on her mom’s phone, she sees a text from Coach Strickland …
“Meet me at the mill” is a sext in Stanton.
Lilette follows her mom to their meeting point and:
Right there in the mill parking lot? They couldn’t have found a dark corner around the building to have their small-town affair? Everyone in Stanton is bad at being sneaky. Anyway, Lilette and her mom later have an argument that ends with Lilette pleading, “BE MY MOTHER!”
Am I crying? I am not, but I really hope Lilette and her mom can go to family therapy and work this out. (Lilette and Gwen will work this out on the stage floor, of this I’m certain.)
Sadder Ted Mosby’s Family Grows Larger
If you thought Rise was done introducing really endearing high schoolers with a dose of sadness thrown in, just wait until Maashous (Rarmian Newton) shows up. (Clarification: Maashous is not pronounced “Mouse House”; this is not a Disney show.)
Maashous runs the lights/stage for the theater department, but he’s also living at the school because he’s homeless and, as far as we know for now, parentless.
“You put me back in the system I’ll just end up in some other district, some other school, some other house,” he tells Mr. Mazzu once he inevitably finds out. So what’s Mr. Mazzu going to do about Maashous? Invite him to stay at his house, naturally!
So it turns out Rise isn’t just a mix of Friday Night Lights, Glee, and This Is Us—it’s a mix of Friday Night Lights, Glee, This Is Us, and The O.C.! Next week a catty narrator is going to be blogging about all of the town drama and I’m going to lose it. As for Sadder Ted Mosby’s selfless act, I’m really hoping it works out, if only because I want Maashous to be legally adopted so his name becomes Maashous Mazzuchelli, which would be the greatest fictional high school character name of all time.
Am I crying? Still no, but I’m really glad Maashous isn’t living out of a sleeping bag; I’m smiling.
Setting Fire to The Pirates of Penzance
Turns out, not everyone at the school is cool with the theater department rolling with Spring Awakening, since it deals with things like abortion, teen suicide, and incest. (Hey, that’s ... understandable.) The principal and football coach (that cheater) team up to convince Mr. Mazzu to drop Spring Awakening and do a play on Pirates of Penzance, but Mr. Mazzu resigns from the post instead. And with that, Rise is over!
Just kidding. The students love Mr. Mazzu—despite the fact he sounds like a witty Dr. Seuss character—and they burn all the Pirates of Penzance costumes in what, I assume, is some kind of pagan ritual to make the audience cry.
Am I crying? [Wipes snot from face] THEY REALLY DO LOVE MR. MAZZU. LONG LIVE SPRING AWAKENING!