When Glee premiered in 2009, it was revolutionary for a few reasons: 1) It was a successful musical television series—who knew musicals could be cool? 2) Underneath all of the pop covers, there was a powerful thematic message about the importance of being yourself, which is a reminder that we all need. 3) It pulled back the curtain on what it was like to be a drama kid in high school. And while early seasons of Glee were praised by critics and fans alike, everyone can pretty much agree that it went off the rails in later seasons. Glee knew it was a comedy, which often led it to veer into the absurd (remember the episode when they sang “What Does The Fox Say” while holding puppets of themselves?). But NBC’s Rise, even in just two episodes, is shaping up to be a better representation of the high school theatre experience.
From the beginning, it’s been quite obvious that Rise is grounded in reality. As Mr. Mazzu (Josh Radnor) drives to work in the first episode, he is surrounded by factories and other imagery of a blue collar, working class town. There are no poppy colors and there is no “ba-da-da-da” background music as an incompetent high school teacher tries to inappropriately insert himself into his student’s lives. It’s just Mr. Mazzu on his way to work, where he will do his job as a high school English teacher.
Glee, as groundbreaking as it was, never really captured the essence of the true drama kid. Sure, it brought together students from different backgrounds to create art together, but it too often portrayed Lea Michele’s Type-A Rachel Berry and Chris Colfer’s delicate Kurt Hummel as the end-all-be-all of what high school theatre was, further stereotyping kids in drama club as difficult divas.
Image from @alhambrajax on Twitter
Rise is able to break out of this mold. It does follow the trope of bringing students of different cliques together on stage, but it is the way that it is done that makes it so realistic. As someone who was very involved in their theatre department at a small town high school, I know the kinds of people the musical casts were composed of. You would have several people who had experience from community theatre productions. You would have many people who had done one school production before and were coming back for more. You had countless of students in the cast who had no experience but wanted to try something new. People didn’t have crazy stories for being there; they were just there because they wanted to be. Rise captures this perfectly.
And even better, as all of these newcomers arrive to the Stanton High drama department, we see them struggle. Yes, with personal issues, but also with simple things, like memorizing lines or choreography. This is what high school theatre is. The cast struggles with the rehearsal process. Their drama teacher motivates them. They come together to produce a show. There are no crazy antics where the cheerleading coach is actively trying to break up a student couple at the school (yes, this was the plot of an actual episode of Glee). Rehearsals, friendships, running lines—this is true high school theatre.
Furthermore, the obstacles that the drama department as a whole faces are so realistic. In the second episode, Mr. Mazzu and Ms. Wolfe (Rosie Perez) are tasked with going to the school board to get more funding for the program. It is a well-documented fact that funding for the arts in schools is significantly less than funding for athletics. A student’s parents complain to the Stanton principal because they find the material in Spring Awakening objectionable for high school students. There are countless stories of parents and communities protesting high school theatre productions due to content, language, or other reasons. These are the problems that real high school drama programs face—not sabotage from other schools—and I am excited to see how Rise resolves these issues in its eight remaining episodes.
I feel as though I should say that I did like Glee. I thought it was funny, conveyed positive messages that teens needed to hear, and tackled taboo subjects that needed to be discussed. That being said, theatre fans and drama kids have been calling for more mainstream representation of musical theatre for a long time, and Rise is giving them that. There may not be any flashy musical numbers (yet!), but we are getting to see the trials and tribulations of a realistic drama department, and that is what matters most.
Rise airs on NBC, Tuesdays at 9pm.