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Has Hollywood ever given us an unsympathetic high-school English teacher? Viewers of the NBC drama Rise will find themselves wishing to root for the show’s central character, Lou Mazzuchelli, an English teacher taking charge of his small-town high school’s theater program. But sympathetic or not, Lou leads this drama in the wrong direction.
Lou (Josh Radnor) faces challenges at home, such as an insolent son with a drinking problem. The cast members in his play have personal troubles, too: One is a foster child, another is watching her parents’ marriage crumble … and there are no secrets in tiny Stanton. The theater has little to no budget. Tensions flare between Lou, the administration, and the football coach, whose star quarterback also stars in Lou’s show. Lou makes a lot of arrogant mistakes as a first-time director, but that simply makes him seem human to us.
However, his choice of play, Spring Awakening, is an actual musical with extreme sexual content. It parallels events in the lives of the Stanton cast, including teen pregnancy and homosexuality. In the end, both works—Spring Awakening and Rise—rail against the “repression” of adolescent sexual identity, whatever that identity may be. (Courage and leadership, in this school, look like Lou allowing a transgender student to change in the opposite sex’s dressing room.) Rise shows characters genuinely struggling with sexual identity, but ultimately normalizes their choices and romances.
The show is based on a book, Drama High, about a real high-school theater program in Pennsylvania that doesn’t shy away from making audiences uncomfortable. Broadway actress Rosie Perez anchors the cast of Rise as Lou’s passionate assistant director, while Auli’i Cravalho (Moana) and others wow us with their musical abilities. Rise is well-written, hopeful, and considerably more mild than Spring Awakening (this is network TV, after all), but it’s still overly sexualized. Something tells me Lou is not going to choose The Music Man next year.